If you've noticed an influx of hormone-related stories in recent years, there's likely a good reason why. As the body's chemical messengers, hormones affect everything from sexual function to metabolism — making the growing fascination not only warranted, but also beneficial.
Still, as the number of books about their origins and studies on their effects continue to increase, the question remains: What exactly are hormones, and why are they so important to the body?
The Hormone Health Network — an organization run by the Endocrine Society — defines them this way: "Hormones are special chemical messengers in the body that are created in the endocrine glands. These messengers control most major bodily functions, from simple basic needs like hunger to complex systems like reproduction, and even the emotions and mood. Understanding the major hormones and what they do will help patients take control of their health."
Understanding what they are and how they affect our bodies begins with the variety of glands known as the endocrine system. This network of glands is fueled by hormones, which are released into the body in order to control bodily functions. The main hormone-producing glands, and their functions, are:
The hypothalamus, which controls hunger, mood, body temperature, and sleep.
The adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, the stress hormone, and help control sex drive.
The pancreas, which makes the insulin, which helps control blood sugar levels.
The ovaries, which make estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
The testes, which produce testosterone and sperm.
From there, each hormone has a specific function, playing an intricate role in how we operate. Estrogen in women, for example, causes puberty, regulates the menstrual cycle, affects mood, and preps the body for pregnancy. Testosterone, in men, has some similar effects — causing puberty, triggering facial hair growth, increasing bone density, and encouraging muscle growth.
Like anything in the body, hormones aren't perfect. When there's an imbalance or too much or too little of a hormone in the body, it can have a negative impact. Symptoms of hormone imbalances vary greatly based on the specific chemical, but they can include depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, insomnia, and low libido.
To help shed light on how to manage imbalances, Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with Dawn Cutillo, author of The Hormone Shift and founder of a holistic health center in Pennsylvania. Cutillo says that it's important to recognize that stress — which causes an increase in cortisol — can actually trigger an imbalance, as can a poor diet.
"I think the biggest thing is watching sugar and not getting on that sugar roller coaster," Cutillo tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "So watching sugar, caffeine, alcohol — having these things with a meal will at least help the protein and the fat in the meal balance the blood sugar." If cutting out sugar isn't in the cards, Cutillo says there are herbal remedies that may be able to help.
"Herbs like maca and ginseng are becoming more popular," she says. "They come in a tea or a pill form, and actually taking them daily will help aid the stress response so that the body can then balance your hormones."