Of all the systems of the body, the endocrine system is the most complex and perhaps least understood by conventional science. Intricately linked to the brain and nervous system, this fascinating network is comprised of the endocrine glands, the hormones they secrete, and related biochemical messengers that regulate every function in the body. Not long ago, scientists believed that there were approximately 40 hormones circulating the body, while today they have accounted for over 100. One can only wonder how many more of these mystifying substances will be discovered in the future as we begin to grasp the full scope of this intriguing system.
The word hormone was derived from the Greek word for “excite,” thus linking our hormones to our emotions. This is further explained when we understand that the pituitary gland, known as our master gland, is located in the hypothalamus region of the midbrain. The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system, known as the ancient “reptilian” brain, that governs our emotions and instinctual processes such as hunger, thirst and sexuality. It is here that our feelings are processed and hormonal signals sent from the pituitary gland to the various other glands for appropriate physical and behavioral response.
Each hormone is like a highly specialized key, designed to transmit its message only to certain target receptor cells that are capable of recognizing that particular hormone. Hormones act by turning on or off the genes for a special function, or by regulating the rate at which these functions are performed. The endocrine system is an intricate feedback system with impeccable timing in which hormones release or suppress other hormones to maintain the delicate balance of life. Height, weight, growth, maturation, adaptation to stress, sexual response, reproduction and aging are determined by this brilliant “lock and key” system.
One of the challenges we face in our technologically advanced society, is that many environmental toxins, particularly petrochemicals, mimic hormones and bind to the receptor sites intended for our natural hormones. This automatically presents problems in cell-to-cell communication. In a sense, our signals get crossed and the body malfunctions. These masquerading chemicals are called xenobiotics. Perhaps the most notorious of these are the xenoestrogens that are responsible for reduced sperm count in men, hormonal imbalance in men and women, and an increase in cancer. Fortunately, there are natural therapies available to detox the body of these “trickster” chemicals so that the brain and glandular system can work more effectively.
The ancients have long recognized the importance of the endocrine system as regulators of bodily function and much more. The Hindu Chakra System depicts the flow of prana (life force energy) as entering the body through seven primary energy centers. (Some systems identify as many as thirteen.) These energy centers, called chakras, act like portals for the prana to flow into the body and nourish it. Each chakra is associated with a corresponding endocrine gland and related mental, emotional, or spiritual issue. For example, if we are having difficulty speaking up for ourselves, the throat chakra will close slightly, thus reducing the flow of energy to the thyroid gland. Thyroid problems such as low energy, thinning hair and obesity may be experienced as a result. As we learn from our life experiences and resolve these issues, this increases the flow of energy into the chakras, creating healing on all levels of the bodymind.
In order to better understand the tremendous influence our hormones have on our emotional and physical health, let’s look at a few of the various players in the endocrine dance of life.
Perhaps the most mysterious of all the glands is the pineal gland. Located in the center of the brain, the pineal gland has been referred to by mystics as the “third eye” and “the seat of the mind.” It is linked to the crown chakra, our energetic connection with spirit and spiritual purpose. Shaped like an eye with a crystalline lens-like structure for receiving light, the pineal gland functions as the body’s internal biological clock, telling us when it is time to sleep, when to develop sexually, and how to adapt to seasonal changes. The pineal gland regulates these circadian rhythms by secreting the hormone melatonin as sunlight begins to fade, peaking during the darkest time of night. The pineal gland also secretes the hormone seratonin, which promotes emotional warmth, calmness and inner peace.
It has long been known that women who spend much of their time outside under the natural luminaries will regulate their menses according to the moon cycle. Native American women would honor their connection to “Grandmother Moon” by gathering together in moon lodges during their bleeding time, which would usually occur at the new moon. They knew that this was their most powerful time for psychic receptivity.
Natural light is an important nutrient for health, and a deficiency causes an alteration in the hormones secreted by the pineal gland. Studies have shown that a lack of natural light and prolonged exposure to artificial light can lead to insomnia, anxiety, depression, aggression and degenerative disease.
Animal instinct is preserved in the pineal gland, though due to its comparative smaller size in humans, it is not as highly developed in us. Apparently, however, this may not have always been true. There may have been a time when, like the animals, we were more in tune with our intuition and nature. It has been said that while once our pineal gland was about the size of a quarter, now it is the size of a pea. There are many theories on how, in our ancient past, the pineal gland may have been more actively used to bring about higher states of consciousness. Some believe that the sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid was strategically located so that if an initiate was lying in it, a spiral of white light would go directly through the pineal gland, allowing the initiate to travel to other dimensions. It has been reputed that when archaeologists first opened the sarcophagus they found an unusual white crystalline powder, which is now in the British Museum. Some sources claim that when in a particular state of deep meditation, humans excrete a certain chemical from the pituitary gland, which crystallizes into a fine white powder.
The mystery of the pineal gland and its true purpose is still unknown. In modern times it has been observed that some yogis who have practiced deep, intensive meditation developed larger than average pineal glands. Perhaps as we learn more about the pineal, pituitary, and hypothalamus we can access the keys to our inheritance and once again reach the levels of consciousness our ancestors did.
It could be said that in today’s world, the adrenal glands are the most over-worked of all the glands. The adrenals produce more than three dozen hormones that perform many functions such as controlling mineral balance and blood sugar levels. However, it is in our response to stress that the adrenals play a major role, and are instrumental in how our body responds to fear and anger. It is no longer the saber-toothed tiger that elicits the adrenaline rush of fight or flight, but the numerous stresses of daily life (traffic jams, deadlines, arguments, unpaid bills). Even so, the hormones that are released in response to these mundane stresses prepare our body for fight or flight. The flood of adrenaline causes the blood to be shunted away from the vital internal organs into the muscles, increasing the heart rate, and raising the blood sugar for increased energy. Over time this severely depletes the entire system. Some researchers of brain longevity believe that the constant stress-induced secretion of adrenal hormones depletes the neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to poor memory and even Alzheimer’s disease.
The adrenal glands also produce important steroid hormones such as DHEA, and even some amounts of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. However, when we are under pressure, the adrenals’ priority is to concentrate its efforts on the production of adrenaline and cortisols instead. The continuous demands of stress, therefore, can adversely affect our sexual response and reproductive health.
Natural remedies that help to support the adrenals are licorice root and pantothenic acid. Calming herbs such as valerian, scullcap and hops can also beneficially influence how we perceive stress. Lifestyle changes are definitely in order for those with severely stressed adrenals. Regular massage, aromatherapy baths, moderate exercise and breathwork will also help to relieve built up physical and emotional tension. Some health practitioners recommend up to one full year of rest for adrenal burn-out.
It is the popular notion that as we age we lose the ability to produce many of our vital hormones, resulting in a myriad of symptoms. These may include impotency, loss of muscle mass, poor memory, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, obesity, hot flashes, anxiety, depression and fatigue. Society’s answer to this dilemma is the proliferation and marketing of a multitude of “superhormones” such as estrogen, DHEA, pregnenalone, melatonin, thyroid hormone, testosterone, and human growth hormone. Many of these hormones are synthetically produced and carry serious side effects, some of which are the very symptoms these hormones promise to reduce. The dance of the hormones is carefully choreographed, and artificial supplementation of one hormone can affect many others. One must be extremely careful with these potent supplements that have powerful effects on the body, many of which are still unknown.
Women in particular have been targeted by the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies for hormone supplementation for birth control and menopause. These prescribed hormones are synthetic in nature, and after many years of use have proven to be quite dangerous to women’s health. Synthetic estrogen, because it is unlike natural estrogen in molecular structure, has many side effects including painful breasts, mood swings, acne, inability to concentrate, weight gain, excessive menstrual bleeding and increased incidence of breast, cervical and uterine cancer.
After several years of estrogen replacement therapy proved an associated increased risk of cancer, synthetic progesterone (called progestin) was added to balance the estrogen. Synthetic progestins bring their own array of side effects, including fluid retention, nausea, insomnia, depression, and a higher rate of breast cancer.
In his excellent groundbreaking book, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause, John Lee, M.D., refutes the necessity for estrogen replacement therapy, stating that most of the hormonal problems women face today are caused by estrogen dominance due to xenoestrogens and what he calls unopposed estrogens due to progesterone deficiency. He recommends natural progesterone cream derived from wild yam and soy to balance the hormones naturally without the side effects of synthetic progestins.
Natural progesterone cream has been successfully used for PMS, painful menses, uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, endometriosis, menopause, thyroid imbalance, and even osteoporosis. There are now several progesterone creams on the market, many of which are not natural, and some with inadequate levels of progesterone, so be discerning.
The plant kingdom is rich in herbs that have hormonal effects on the body. phytoestrogens herbs (herbs that have estrogen-like effects) are black cohosh, blue cohosh, and dong quai. Green oats possesses the alluring property of releasing bound testosterone in the blood stream, making it an effective stimulant for libido in both men and women. Kelp, due to its abundant supply of iodine, supports the thyroid gland, and ginseng is a tonic for the entire system. Recently, the development of a plant formulation containing essential monosaccharides (simple sugars) for the creation of Glycoproteins has become available. Glycoproteins are substances that line the membrane of every cell and are necessary for cell-to-cell communication. This is vitally important for hormone production and immune function.
As we learn more about our hormonal keys and the codes they unlock, the secrets of our human potential will continue to be revealed to us in the evolutionary dance of life. Like the origin of the word hormone implies, this is something we can be “excited” about!