Female biology: endocrine
The endocrine system is made up of glands that release over 20 major hormones directly into the bloodstream and throughout the body as part of a complex communication network happening in our bodies.
These hormone-producing glands work in an interconnected way to ensure all our cycles and systems have everything they need in order to function properly. Our organs for example, work together in harmony because they are regulated by the endocrine system. Some other vital processes it regulates are our moods, immunity, growth and development, muscle and nerve function, metabolism, sexual function, and reproduction.
Whilst the nervous system is controlling fast-acting activities in the body such as movement and breathing, the endocrine system produces hormones that regulate these activities. It regulates them by leading interactions in the body that happen much slower, such as hormone production, cell growth and energy management.
Digging deep into the biology behind everything hormone-related in our bodies is a vital piece in putting together our own hormones health puzzle to allow us to support the balance and function of our cycles.
We’ll now take a look at the main glands that form the endocrine system, what their responsibilities are and how they relate to our day-to-day lives:
The Hypothalamus | Balance
This centre of homeostasis is responsible for maintaining our bodies’ own internal sense of balance. In order to achieve that balance, it either supports the suppression or simulation of key processes in the body such as blood pressure, body weight, body temperature, sleep cycles and much more.
The Pituitary Gland | Wisdom
Dynamite definitely comes in small packages when it comes to the pituitary gland. As we established above, this pea-sized gland produces hormones that control major functions in the body. It’s also commonly known as the ‘master gland’ in the endocrine system because of the hormones it creates that control the activity of other endocrine glands. For example, the pituitary is responsible for producing a hormone that stimulates the adrenals to secrete steroid hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline and the ovaries to produces sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.
The Thyroid | Growth
This butterfly-shaped gland produces hormones that regulate our metabolism and it largely relies on iodine from our diet to maintain its optimum function. Other processes regulated by the thyroid are digestion, muscle control, brain development and mood and bone maintenance. The thyroid is also an example of an endocrine gland that’s partly controlled by the pituitary gland. Thyroid stimulating hormone is produced in the pituitary and does as the name suggests - stimulates the production of thyroid hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine. Our thyroid plays a role in managing our energy levels and our ability to metabolise food and therefore our body weight. Read our Hormone 101 series on signals to watch out for that may be linked to an underactive or overactive thyroid.
The Parathyroid | Structure
The Parathyroid glands produce parathyroid hormones - although they are closely situated to the thyroid - their functions aren’t related. The main function of these glands is to regulate calcium levels in the blood. Calcium is the most important element in the body as it controls vital organ functions - this is why it has its only regulatory system, thanks to the parathyroid.
If calcium levels drop, the parathyroid senses it and produces more, and vice versa. This intelligent design ensures we are within our optimum range of calcium so that it can achieve its purpose throughout our body. Making up at least 2% of our body weight, this essential element keeps our bones and teeth strong and can support in preventing disease. Lack of calcium in the bones can lead to conditions such as osteoporosis and too much calcium can weaken bones and cause kidney stones.
The Adrenals | Protection
Located above the kidney, the adrenal glands are our steroid hormone producing heros. They help us respond to stress by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. They are also responsible for producing male sex hormones like testosterone - which plays a role in the early development of sex organs in men and female body hair in women during puberty. When women reach their menopausal years, the adrenals also produce small amounts of estrogen. With stress being an everyday part of life these days, adrenal dysfunction is common. With the expansion of technology and consumerism as we continue to evolve and try to stay healthy - quick fixes such as coffee can end up causing the opposite of the desired effect. We’re tired, we drink coffee, when instead the body is signalling for us to rest. Substances such as coffee confuse the adrenals because the glands are interpreting it as a stress and therefore will respond accordingly and produce too much cortisol. This can also have a negative impact on other endocrine glands, so keeping the adrenals in balance is a good place to start when dealing with hormonal issues. You can read more on this and what symptoms to watch out for in our Hormone 101 series on adrenaline and cortisol.
The Pancreas | Regulation
The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach that forms part of the digestive system - it has two primary functions - the production of enzymes that aid in the digestive process, aka bile, and the production of insulin which controls our blood sugar levels. A dysfunctional pancreas can lead to dysfunctional digestion and bowel movements; when there aren't enough enzymes being produced for the digestive system, this leads to diarrhea. When it comes to blood sugar - without a sufficient amount of insulin, the body can’t manage its glucose levels and this can lead to diabetes. There are many complexities around managing our blood sugar levels, learn more about it and some signals to look out for, in our Hormone 101 series on insulin.
The Gonads | Reproduction / Creation
The gonads are the male and female reproductive organs - for women these are the ovaries and for men, the testes. Both the male and female gonads produce sex hormones that influence gene expression in a person’s body. The primary female sex hormones produced in the ovaries are estrogen, progesterone as well as small amounts of testosterone in the ovaries - all of which play vital roles in the development of sex characteristics, the function of a women’s menstrual cycle, libido and pregnancy. Testosterone is the main hormone produced by the male gonads - it’s responsible for the growth of male sex characteristics, increasing muscle mass, deepening of the voice and growing body hair. Any imbalances of these hormones in the body can lead to health issues - both mental and physical. Read our Hormones 101 series to help to better understand the related signals.
The Pineal Gland | Rhythm
The pineal gland is found deep in the centre of the brain and is mainly responsible for producing our major sleep hormone, melatonin. Located in-between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, this small yet powerful gland regulates our internal body clock, also known as our circadian rhythm. This rhythm, when we are healthy and balanced, is what supports us in feeling energetic in the mornings when we need to be motivated, and sleepy and calm at night when we need to sleep. When we are out of balance, this can have an unpleasant effect on our sleep cycles and therefore our ability to control other areas of our lives, and our overall health. More on this sleepy hormone and why it’s important to be in the know, here.
That’s when we need to pause, get quiet and listen to what our hormones have to say. This applies to all the systems in our body that exist only to fulfil their purpose of keeping us alive and well. If something is out of place, it is our duty to notice and respond with love and attention. Genetics, medication, poor diet, poor lifestyle, environmental endocrine disruptors and stress are all circumstances that can lead to an unhappy and imbalanced endocrine system. Not all of which are within our control, but those that we can change are simple yet we are often working in the dark. Thinking we’ve got it all figured it out because of the latest trend we’ve read about, veganism, keto, paleo, when in fact our bodies may need something completely different. We must go on our own quest - this takes courage, commitment and self-love. As Jim Rohn said, “If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much”
How much time are we willing to put into healing ourselves? What can we do to support these glands? A good place to start is reviewing our diet, lifestyle and stress-levels and how simple choices can initiate positive change. Eating a wide variety of unprocessed plant and animal proteins can provide essential vitamins and minerals for hormone production and signalling and drinking plenty of water can support safe excretion of used hormones. Make self-care your priority when you know you’re under more stress than usual. Yoga, walks in nature, mindfulness or any creative pursuits or forms of exercise that help you to relax and release energy, are all great ways to support overall regulation.
Healing requires action, as much as medicine is needed in many cases and practitioners can support and help us, we play a crucial role in the process. Putting all the power outside of ourselves, sets us up for possible recurring issues that continue to resurface until we’ve put the required energy into our own quest. Participating in understanding how it all works, and what could be contributing to imbalances in our health, body and mind is a great first step towards taking charge of our own process of healing. Just like the pituitary gland listens to the bodies signals and senses changes in environments, so can we. We too can act as “master glands” - masters of our own health, by learning how to listen more attentively to our signals, and respond effectively. Especially when we are under stress or know our balance is at risk, ask yourself; Can I adapt my lifestyle to better suit these changes in my environment and circumstances? If change is the only constant, let’s keep up and join forces with ourselves and our bodies.
words by Amy Mabin