The closest we ever come to understanding the influence of hormones in our lives is when a girlfriend snaps at us for no particular reason and later apologises blaming it on her hormones. Most of us know our bodies are influenced by hormones but we are not aware to what extent.
According to Dr Agatha Nambuya, an endocrinologist and nuclear medicine specialist, hormones are essential in the functioning of our bodies. She describes them as the chemical messengers that travel in our bloodstream to stimulate function in every organ and tissue in the body.
“Most of the tissues produce hormones but the primary ones start in the brain and go to the endocrine organs that produce specific hormones,” Dr Nambuya explains, adding, “Some of these hormones include the thyroid stimulating hormone which produces a hormone known as thyroxine that is responsible for body warmth and proper muscle and brain function, among others.
Dr Nambuya says there are also steroid hormones called cortisol that control the level of blood sugar and blood pressure, sex, hunger, love, happy and stress hormones that influence the body’s fat storage, sex drive, energy levels, brain health and many other vital functions.
Effects of imbalance
Because hormones affect the body’s overall health, when they are not balanced, they result in a number of illnesses including diabetes, obesity, blood pressure and insanity among others. According to Dr Nambuya, if your hormones are not right, nothing else will be.
“Although different hormones have different functions, the most interesting thing is that they are interconnected. For instance when insulin is not enough and the food eaten is not being utilised, the brain will register that there is no glucose so it will make the adrenal (a pair of ductless glands situated above the kidneys) secrete a lot of adrenal hormones that work by increasing the sugar levels.
This function will be taken over by cortisol which will make the body produce sugar using other hormones in the liver. This increase in the sugar level results in diabetes,” the hormone specialist explains.
Another interesting fact about hormones is that while each hormone has its own level, an imbalance in one affects the others. “For instance, if a woman is anxious to have a child, the hormone cortisol will take over and suppress the reproductive hormones rendering them ineffective. That is why we advise women trying to conceive to avoid stress,” Dr Nambuya explains.
As we grow, our hormones change. Starting at puberty when children experience a growth spurt that makes boys’ voices become deeper and girls develop breasts and start menstruating. This process starts to decline from about 27 years onwards. Dr Nambuya, therefore, emphasises that from that age onwards people should be more conscious of their hormonal health.
She notes that there are some hormonal changes that occur which although might be alarming should not cause people to worry. “It is only natural for a woman to produce excess estrogen before her menstruation that will cause her to develop pimples or feel bloated. Or women experiencing menopause are likely to sweat too much. The best you can do is buy more handkerchiefs and let nature take its course,” advises Dr Nambuya.
Changes to watch
There are, however, hormonal changes that should not be ignored because these imbalances cause disease. “Unfortunately diseases caused by hormonal imbalances are known as silent killers where one dies without realising they are sick. Dr Nambuya advises people to listen to their bodies and seek medical attention if they do not understand some of the feelings they are experiencing.
Some of the signs that one’s hormones have an imbalance include; constant thirst, frequent urination, tingling in the feet, poor sight, low sex drive, sluggishness, forgetfulness, moodiness, unexplained weight gain or loss, inability to handle stress, taking longer to recover and wounds that do not heal among others.
Cost of tests
According to Dr Moses Ssemulya, a general practitioner from Le Memorial Hospital in Kigo, hormonal health is a growing area of medicine and more laboratories now offer tests although they vary in cost. For instance, the thyroid hormone test costs Shs60,000 but they are usually three tests required so it will cost you Shs180,000.
Maintaining hormone health
Asked whether there are some things that help hormone health, Dr Ssemulya urges people to stay away from alcohol and drugs. “Too much alcohol and drugs destroy the pancreas which stops producing insulin so you become diabetic. Steroid hormones in form of drugs such as Dexa, do not only destroy the adrenal gland but other glands as well.
The body cannot function without adrenal hormone, when you are unable to get that steroid fix, you die,” explains Dr Ssemulya. He adds that foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and avocado contain compounds that help the body to metabolise oestrogen and fight stress so should be included in your daily diet. Getting sufficient sleep and regular exercise are other ways to keep your hormones at an optimal level.
Since stress is one of the factors that severely affect hormones, yoga instructor Cissy Nansera suggests practicing yoga as the best way to minimise stress. “Yoga allows you to tune in, balance and stimulate happy hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, our body’s natural antidepressants that ‘eat’ our stress hormones,” Nansera explains.
Importance of treatment
Dr Nambuya observes that people often spend a lot of their time focusing on external factors of health such as exercise and nutrition yet it is the internal factors such as hormones that determine whether you are healthy or not. She relates an incident of a female patient who had been admitted to Butabika Hospital as suffering from schizophrenia yet her problem was a hormonal imbalance.
“The patient, who was also diabetic, was considered a difficult case because no drugs were helping her. Fortunately, one of her friends, a senior nurse, suspected that her friend’s madness might be stemming from a hormonal imbalance. When we admitted her, we discovered she had been taking insulin because she was diabetic as well.
She was particularly on very high doses as they thought it would help with the convulsions she was experiencing. Yet this chronic lack of insulin was the one affecting her mental functions,” narrates Dr Nambuya. She relates that after diagnosing the patient, they stopped giving her the insulin and she recovered within a week.
Balancing the hormones
Testosterone is more associated with males but women have it too. The hormone is secreted by the testes in males and in much smaller doses in the ovaries in females. In the right amounts, testosterone can help to increase muscle mass and strength and might increase brain function. Low levels can lead to a decreased sex drive, a higher level of fat storage, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. To maintain a healthy balance, get proper sleep, eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
Made by the pituitary gland, this hormone helps to increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. Since aging males often suffer from exactly the opposite effect, growth hormone is thought of as the anti-aging hormone. High-intensity interval training (or HIIT) is one the more reliable forms of exercise to increase levels of growth hormone and potentially reduce the effects of aging.
Estrogen helps to regulate female reproductive cycles. In males, estrogen is important for sex drive. Its levels can impact how fat is stored in the body. Eating healthy foods and engaging in regular exercise are your best bets against estrogen imbalances.
The most important controller of how much insulin comes from the pancreas is the glucose from the food you eat. When you eat, the glucose is absorbed from the intestines, it goes to the pancreas and insulin is produced because it is required to make you utilise the food you have eaten. The lack of insulin therefore means the food will stay in circulation becoming poison.
“Healthy eating habits and regular exercise can help mitigate the symptoms of insulin resistance in your body,” Dr Agatha Nambuya, an endocrinologist and nuclear medicine specialist, says.
Cortisol controls energy levels in times of stress. Periods of stress cause the body to break down proteins and release glucose into the blood stream. Cortisol spikes can also be experienced during intense exercise, and continues to rise as the workout session goes on. Running, strength training and other forms of exercise in moderation can help decrease stress levels. Meditation is another powerful antidote for combatting stress.