What Are Hormones and What Do They Do?

Plus, how to tell if you have a hormonal imbalance and what to do about it
Person has physician checking thyroid gland.

People can blame out-of-whack hormones for every medical problem under the sun. But how can you really tell if your hormone levels are off? There are 50 different types of hormones affecting your body’s systems. Endocrinologist Divya Yogi-Morren, MD, discusses the seven hormones you should know about, how to tell if you have a hormonal imbalance and what to do about it.

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What are hormones?

Hormones are chemical substances that your body makes in organs called glands. While there are glands throughout your body, the pea-sized pituitary gland at the base of your brain is the puppet master. “It’s responsible for making hormones that tell the other glands what hormones they should make,” explains Dr. Yogi-Morren.

For example, your pituitary gland makes:

  • Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates your adrenal gland to produce the hormone cortisol.
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), which stimulate your gonads (ovaries and testes) to make the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
  • Growth hormone, which stimulates your liver to make the hormone insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1).
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which stimulates your thyroid to make the thyroid hormones, FreeT4 and Free T3.

Seven types of hormones, what they do — and how to tell if you have a hormonal imbalance

When you have a hormonal imbalance, the gland making your hormones produces too much or not enough of that specific hormone. Dr. Yogi-Morren lists seven hormones that have VIP status in our bodies, what these hormones do and signs your body isn’t making the right amount.

1. Cortisol

What does cortisol do?

Cortisol is a stress hormone. “Cortisol levels increase in response to stress, and it’s not just medical and physiological stress. Psychological stress can increase cortisol as well,” says Dr. Yogi-Morren.

Cortisol is a hormone jack-of-all-trades. It:

  • Helps with blood pressure maintenance, sleep-wake cycles and blood sugar regulation.
  • Helps you have good energy levels.
  • Regulates how your body uses fats, proteins and carbs.

“A good night’s sleep is important for cortisol regulation,” she adds. “Cortisol is the get-up-and-go hormone, and there’s a circadian pattern to cortisol release”:

  • Morning: Cortisol peaks in the morning around 5 a.m., around the time you’re waking up.
  • Early afternoon: By the afternoon, cortisol levels are dropping.
  • Late afternoon: Cortisol levels start to rise again, and there’s a slight peak around 4 p.m.
  • Night: Cortisol levels bottom out around midnight.

Signs of a cortisol imbalance

Signs of cortisol deficiency include:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Hyperpigmentation (dark spots on your skin).
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Salt cravings.
  • Weight loss.

Signs of too much cortisol include:

  • Weakness in your proximal muscles — the muscles closer to the center of your body. “People may have difficulty raising their arms to brush their hair, standing up from a chair or climbing steps,” notes Dr. Yogi-Morren.
  • Developing prominent stretch marks that stay red or purple and don’t heal.
  • Muscle wasting in your arms or legs.
  • Psychological symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Weight gain, especially around your abdomen.

2. Estrogen

What does estrogen do?

Estrogen is known as a sex hormone. It affects sexual development and function. Dr. Yogi-Morren says it’s also important for bone health.

When women and people assigned female at birth go through puberty, estrogen helps them develop secondary sexual characteristics (sex characteristics not directly related to reproduction), such as:

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  • Breasts.
  • Increased body fat.
  • Menstrual cycles.
  • Uterus development.

Signs of an estrogen imbalance

If you don’t have enough estrogen, you may enter menopause. Signs of menopause include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Hot flashes.
  • Increased sweating.
  • Vaginal dryness.
  • Weight gain.

3. Testosterone

What does testosterone do?

Testosterone is another sex hormone. Like estrogen, it also helps keep bones healthy.

When men and people assigned male at birth go through puberty, testosterone helps them develop secondary sexual characteristics, such as:

  • Body and facial hair.
  • Lower voice.
  • Muscle mass and strength.

Signs of a testosterone imbalance

Hypersexuality is a symptom of too much testosterone, but it’s rare. What’s more common, Dr. Yogi-Morren says, is testosterone levels that decline as men get older. Signs of low testosterone include:

  • Erectile dysfunction.
  • Fatigue.
  • Loss of muscle mass.
  • Low libido.
  • More belly fat.

4. Thyroid hormone

What do thyroid hormones do?

Thyroid hormones control your body’s metabolism. They help transform the food we eat into energy.

Signs of a thyroid hormone imbalance

Common symptoms of hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, include:

  • Cold intolerance.
  • Constipation.
  • Dry skin.
  • Excess weight gain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Hair loss, including on the outer third of your eyebrows.

Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, include:

  • Increased sweating.
  • Jitteriness or shakiness.
  • Loose bowel movements.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Weight loss.

5. Growth hormone

What does growth hormone do?

Growth hormone affects your height. Dr. Yogi-Morren says it’s most important during puberty, although “too much or too little in adults can also cause problems.”

Causes of growth hormone deficiencies include:

  • Pituitary tumors.
  • Radiation therapy to treat childhood cancer.
  • Traumatic accidents (like car accidents).

Signs of a growth hormone imbalance

Signs of growth hormone deficiency include:

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  • Fatigue.
  • Gaining abdominal fat.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Weakness.

“Sometimes, for people with pituitary disease, we may correct all other hormonal imbalances except growth hormone because it’s rare that adults need it,” explains Dr. Yogi-Morren. “But when it’s the only thing left after symptoms don’t resolve, we replace it, and people may feel a lot better.”

Too much growth hormone in adults can lead to a condition called acromegaly, which can cause:

  • Increased jaw size.
  • Increase in spaces between your teeth.
  • Joint pain.
  • New onset of diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Soft tissue swelling.

6. Insulin

What does insulin do?

This important hormone comes from your pancreas and regulates blood sugar (glucose).

“It also allows the cells in our muscles, fat and liver to take up the glucose absorbed in the blood. The glucose then gives these cells energy,” says Dr. Yogi-Morren. “Insulin also affects other metabolic processes such as how the body uses fat and protein.”     

Signs of an insulin imbalance

A pancreas not meeting its insulin quota causes Type 1 diabetes. This condition most often occurs before adulthood but can develop at any time. Symptoms of Type 1 diabetes include:

  • High blood sugar.
  • Increased thirst.
  • Too much glucose in your urine (glycosuria).
  • Weight loss.

In Type 2 diabetes, your pancreas makes enough insulin, but your body doesn’t respond to it like it should (insulin resistance). Signs of Type 2 diabetes include:

  • Extreme thirst or hunger, even after eating.
  • Glycosuria.
  • High blood sugar.
  • Increased urination.
  • Weight loss.

7. Melatonin

What does melatonin do?

Melatonin is important during sleep and helps with your body’s internal clock. Exposure to daylight affects how much melatonin your body releases.

Signs of a melatonin imbalance

Your body makes less melatonin as you age. If you have sleep disturbances, it could be a sign that your body doesn’t make enough melatonin.

How to balance hormones

If you think you have a hormonal imbalance, Dr. Yogi-Morren advises seeing your healthcare provider. Discuss your symptoms and get your hormone levels checked. Treatments range from medications to surgery when a tumor causes a hormonal imbalance.

“Diabetes is a great example of a treatable hormonal imbalance. We have so many more treatment options than ever before.”

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