What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical substances that are produced by certain glands or tissues of the organism. Hormones are spread around in the blood and carry out their effect in certain parts of the body. Hormones are also called chemical messengers because they transmit information and are not utilised during metabolism, as vitamins and mineral nutrients are. Hormones control, for example, growth, sexual development and cell metabolism. Hormones are effective even in very small amounts.
Hormones are broken down very quickly in the body and they are almost always coupled with another hormone that has the opposite effect (antagonistic hormones). For example, insulin reduces blood sugar levels by making itself available to the cells. On the other hand glucagon increases the blood sugar levels if the levels begin to fall below the normal range.
Hormones are divided into two groups:
- Water soluble hormones
- Fat-soluble steroid hormones
Hormones and Age
The sexual hormones oestrogen, progesterone, pregnenolone and the precursor hormone DHEA all play a significant role in the ageing process. Growth hormones and melatonin are also important in this process.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
In order to use hormones in a sensible manner it is important to know one’s individual hormone status. Hormones should definitely not be taken at random with the hopes of reaching a desired effect.
DHEA and growth hormones have not been used for a very long time in hormone replacement therapy. The experiences made with oestrogen exist for decades and are not available for DHEA and growth hormones. However there are various indications of the positive effects of the hormones.
Sex hormones are, in the wider sense, all of the hormones that determine and control the development and the function of the gonads as well as the sexual organs. They are also responsible for the secondary male and female sexual characteristics.
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Melatonin is the hormone that controls the body’s circadian rhythm. Darkness increases the release of melatonin in the body and thereby triggers tiredness.
Insulin is produced in the blood depending on blood sugar levels. The pancreas releases the hormone insulin as soon as the blood sugar levels rise above the normal range as a result of food consumption. Insulin stimulates the intake of glucose (blood sugar) in the liver and muscle cells where it is stored as an energy reserve.
Glucagon is the antagonist of insulin. The hormone glucagon stimulates the break down of glycogen and thereby causes the blood sugar levels to rise as soon as the levels fall under the normal range. For example, if the glucose levels begin to fall as a result of physical activity, the stored sugar reserves are released into the blood.
The DHEA hormone is mostly produced in the morning in the adrenal cortex. The concentration of DHEA reduces during the course of the day. DHEA is converted in the cells to female and male sexual hormones. DHEA is therefore the precursor of other hormones.
Adrenaline und Noradrenaline
Adrenaline and noradrenaline are the classical stress hormones and are produced in the adrenal medulla. Adrenaline is also called the “fight or flight” hormone. Adrenaline not only increases the frequency of the heart beat but also the stroke volume (the volume of blood pumped per beat). In addition to this adrenaline dilates the respiratory tracts thereby facilitating the intake of oxygen. Adrenaline also constricts the blood vessels in the skin and in the organs so that greater amounts of blood are available for the muscles. The level of adrenaline in the blood is usually very low. Adrenaline is released very quickly during a physical or emotional “state of emergency”. The whole body becomes completely alert.
The hormone noradrenaline functions in a similar way to adrenaline however it is not only produced in the adrenal medulla but is also released from certain nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The main role of noradrenaline is to maintain blood pressure. Noradrenaline can cause certain blood vessels to contract so that the heart and the brain continue to have sufficient supplies of blood.
The female sexual hormone oestrogen is one of the most well known hormones. Oestrogen is not a single hormone but rather an entire group of hormones. Oestrogens are mostly produced in the ovaries and during pregnancy they are also produced in the placenta. The adrenal glands produce just as small amounts of oestrogen in men as in women. These hormones are vital for female sexual development and reproduction. Oestrogen also influences many metabolic processes. Oestrogen caters for strong bones, healthy firm skin and thick hair. The oestrogen level in women fluctuates parallel to the menstruation cycle. Most of the oestrogens are released during ovulation. Very little are released during the period.
The male sexual hormone testosterone is produced in the testicles. The hormone testosterone is not only responsible for the male sexual development but also for the typical male skin, bones and muscle build up. In addition to this testosterone is responsible for the development of sexual desire as well as mental balance. The so called andropause, in which testosterone levels sink, begins in the early fifties in many men. Even though the testosterone levels only lower by about one percent a year it can cause episodes of depression, crankiness, concentration disorders, heart palpitation and a decreased sex drive in certain men.