What comes to mind when you think about hormones?
The sports enthusiast likely thinks of steroid users and body builders. A woman may think of menopause. A teenage boy is likely to ignore the question altogether, and continue thinking about girls. But in a way, that’s an answer of its own.
For as varied as our mental pictures of hormones can be, they do tend to have one thing in common: We think about hormones almost purely in terms of their results. This common focus on what hormones do, has allowed us to speak about them without a working concept of what they actually are.
So let’s correct that. You can still conjure up images of bulging biceps when the subject arises; you’ll just know the role that hormones played.
What is a hormone?
Here’s what a smart person with glasses might say (It can be used as either a definition or a sleep aid): A hormone is a regulatory substance that our bodies produce in order to stimulate certain cells to perform certain actions.
Basically, hormones are chemicals that we make in order to send messages to the tissues of our bodies. Our tissues interact with the chemicals, and respond accordingly. They’re like little bike messengers, except with no helmets… or bikes.
Where do they come from?
Everything begins with the endocrine system, the collection of glands that make our hormones. What hormone they produce and in what quantity is determined by a variety of factors including our genetics, age, and outside influences.
This image shows the various glands of the endocrine system, and where they’re found. The endocrine system might not take up much real estate in the body, but it’s importance is hard to overstate. All of the tissues of our bodies are dependent upon this system to keep them in sync.
If the cells of our body are the orchestra, the endocrine system is the director.
How does it work?
The process starts when the glands of the endocrine system are prompted to produce a hormone.
There are a variety of concerns that cause this prompting: Situations that we’re in, reproductive preparedness, food that we consume, and many, many more. Much of the prompting (especially during adolescence) comes from our genes themselves, instructing the body that it’s time for change.
After a hormone has been produced in one of the glands, it’s released into the blood stream, where it circulates to all the cells of the body.
But that doesn’t mean that every hormone effects every cell.
For a hormone to interact with a cell, that cell must have the corresponding receptor. Cells can have multiple hormone receptors and be influenced by many hormones. But if a cell does not have the needed receptor, the hormone won’t bind, and it’s message won’t be delivered. It’s kind of like the dating game (without the true love).
Want to learn about foods that can impact your hormone health? Check out our article "Food and Hormones: 5 Foods to Watch Out For."
Because there are many types of hormone, and cells have differing receptivity, the hormone messages our bodies send can be dynamic. The variety in cells and hormones allows for the transmission of specific messages, targeted to specific types of cells.
How many hormones are there?
The sex hormones testosterone and estrogen are the most commonly talked about, and the diabetics among us are pretty familiar with the hormone insulin. Outside of these, however, name recognition usually takes a nosedive.
That’s why it may be surprising to learn that there are actually some 50 different hormones!
The endocrine system, and the many hormones at its disposal work in concert with the other systems of the body to keep you in the best health possible, one cell at a time. Hormones can cause our bodies to grow tall or strong or to retain fat. Our hormones prepare us to respond to stressful situations, and indicate when it’s time for certain systems to rest. They prepare us for sexual and reproductive activity, and a hundred other things.
But don’t feel too bad if you haven’t thought that much about these dynamic keys to your existence. Hormones are content to do their job silently in the background… until it’s time for a hot flash that is. But that’s another article.