When we think about our health, we often focus on eating a clean diet and exercising more regularly and rarely forget about the healing that needs to start from within – and your endocrine system is an excellent place to start. After all, it’s responsible for everything from growth and development to your mood, organ function, reproduction and metabolism. But what is the endocrine system? In this article, we cover everything there is to know about this network of important glands that play a crucial role in your overall health and wellness.
What is The Endocrine System?
The endocrine system is responsible for almost every organ, cell and function in the body. It’s made up of numerous glands found throughout the body that produce and release hormones that regulate everything from your mood to your growth, development, organ function, metabolism, and reproduction. Some of these glands, such as including the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and pineal gland, are found in the brain, some are in the neck, such as the thyroid and parathyroid glands; the thymus is located between the lungs, the adrenals are located at the top of the kidneys, and the pancreas is located behind the stomach. For women, the ovaries are also a part of the endocrine system and for men, the testes are.
What Does the Endocrine System Do?
There are many glands that make up this vital system in the body and the roles they play are just as vast with each gland having its own set of responsibilities. However, as a whole, the endocrine system makes the hormones, determines the number of hormones to release and sends these hormones into the bloodstream so they can get to where they need to go.
Here’s a quick recap of the main functions of the endocrine system:
- Produces hormones that regulate mood, growth and development, metabolism, organs, and reproduction.
- It controls the number of hormones to release in the body
- Sends hormones into the bloodstream to travel to different parts of the body
The specific glands that make up the endocrine system also have their own functions that they perform. For example:
- The hypothalamus is an organ that links the endocrine system with the nervous system. Its primary function is to signal the pituitary gland to initiate or cease the production of hormones.
- The pituitary gland is the central gland of the endocrine system, known as the “master gland.” It receives information from the brain and sends the glands to where they need to go. The pituitary gland also produces several hormones that serve additional functions, including:
- Growth hormonesProlactin which facilitates milk production in breastfeeding mothersAntidiuretic hormone or vasopressin which regulates blood pressure and body water balanceCorticotropin/ACTH which stimulates hormone production in the adrenal glandThyroid-stimulating hormone which stimulates thyroid hormone productionOxytocin which aids in milk ejection during breastfeeding
- Luteinizing hormone which regulates estrogen in women and testosterone in men
- The pineal gland produces melatonin, a chemical that helps prepare the body for sleep.
- The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone, which regulates metabolism and growth in the body. It also produces calcitonin hormone, which aids in bone strength by calcium to get into bone.
- The parathyroid is made up of four small glands located behind the thyroid that are responsible for bone health and for controlling the levels of calcium and phosphorus in the body.
- The thymus gland produces T-lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infections. It is also essential for a child’s developing immune system.
- The adrenals are two glands that produce adrenaline (the hormone responsible for the “fight or flight” response), and corticosteroids which regulate heart rate, metabolism, oxygen intake, blood flow, and sexual function, among many other functions.
- The pancreas is an organ that plays a part in both the digestive and endocrine systems. It releases digestive enzymes that break down food and also produces the hormones, insulin and glucagon which help regulate blood sugar levels in the bloodstream and cells.
- The ovaries found in women produce estrogen and progesterone which support breast development during puberty, help regulate the menstrual cycle, and support pregnancy.
- The testes found in men produce testosterone, which is responsible for the growth of facial and body hair during puberty, penis enlargement, and sperm production.
Potential Risks of An Unhealthy Endocrine System
An unhealthy endocrine system is one that isn’t functioning properly. This typically occurs naturally with age as things start to slow down, which often results in weight gain even though you haven’t changed your diet or exercise regime, and hormonal shifts. However, you don’t have to be getting older to have a disrupted endocrine system. In fact, your endocrine system can be affected by various factors, regardless of your age, such as stress, infection, and exposure to certain chemicals. Your genetics and lifestyle choices can also play a part in the functioning of your endocrine system.
Whatever the cause, having problems with your endocrine system can lead to a vast array of symptoms and potential health concerns, such as weight gain, weakened bones, disruption to your sleep, moodiness, fatigue, and changes in your mood and behavior. It can even increase your risk of developing endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, or osteoporosis.
As for the potential complications and long-term effects of problems with your endocrine system, this highly depends on the type of endocrine disorder you’re dealing with. For example, type 2 diabetes can lead to nerve damage, vision problems, stroke and kidney damage, whereas someone with hypothyroidism may experience depression, constipation, muscle cramps, slow movements, muscle aches and so on and so forth.
As such, it’s important to understand your specific disorder and the related symptoms and complications.
Signs of Potential Endocrine System Problems
Although the symptoms of endocrine disorders may vary depending on the condition, there are several common signs that are often present across different disorders, such as:
- Changes in blood sugar levels
- Changes in cholesterol levels
- Falls (in the elderly)
- Mood changes
- Unexplainable weight changes
Effective Ways to Keep Your Endocrine System Healthy
By keeping your endocrine system in good shape, you can help ensure that your body can carry out these vital processes effectively. The good news: doing so is fairly simple and requires nothing more than a few positive, healthy lifestyle changes.
Avoid Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disruptors can interfere with your hormones and negatively affect your overall health and wellness. They have been associated with reproductive disorders in both men and women, as well as conditions such as obesity, diabetes, neurological issues, immune and thyroid disorders, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cancers related to hormones. Unfortunately, they’re found in everything from food storage containers to plastic bottles, cleaning products, cosmetics and more. Being aware of them is the first step to reducing your exposure to them.
Smoking tobacco products can negatively affect the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, testicular and ovarian function, as well as calcium metabolism and insulin activity. It can also increase the risk and severity of hyperthyroidism and osteoporosis and cause fertility issues. So, it’s time to butt out.
Improve Your Diet
Food fuels many processes in the body and as the old saying goes, you are what you eat. As such, your diet is an excellent place to make improvements to ensure a healthy endocrine system. Here are some easy recommendations:
- Eat omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acid oils: These fatty acids can improve the function of the endocrine system by assisting with the transportation of hormones throughout the body.
- Top up on more fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables can help benefit the endocrine system by preventing disruptions in the release of hormones that can be caused by a diet high in fat, sugar, or salt.
- Season with herbs and garlic: Garlic is an important nutrient for the endocrine system, as it can help regulate blood sugar levels, which assists the pancreas in producing the right amount of insulin. It may also act as a blood thinner and cholesterol reducer. Certain herbs, such as ginkgo and ginseng can also be beneficial, as they help regulate hormones released throughout the body.
- Avoid processed foods: Processed food is more likely to contain chemicals that can negatively impact the endocrine system as many of them act like hormones, which can confuse the body.
- Limit added sugars: Added sugars, or simple sugars, get absorbed too quickly, which can disrupt the natural balance of glucose and interfere with insulin levels.
- Focus on healthy fats: Healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, seaweed, spirulina, and pumpkin seeds fuel the endocrine system to create many hormones.
Start Taking Adaptogen Herbs
Some herbs are believed to help the body adapt to and alleviate stress, including ginseng, gingko, astragalus, withania, ashwagandha, and jiaogulan. These are called adaptogen herbs and have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for many centuries to increase stress resistance, fight off disease, and much more. And since stress plays a major role in the health of your endocrine system, they can be an excellent natural remedy for maintaining optimal health.
Practice Stress Management
Chronic stress can lead to various health issues, including hormonal imbalances, high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive problems. To alleviate stress, you can exercise daily, practice breathing techniques, use relaxation methods, try meditation, perform some yoga, and tai chi, or journal.
A healthy endocrine system is the secret to maintaining overall health and well-being. Making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle, such as practicing stress-management techniques to help control stress levels, eating a cleaner diet and reducing your exposure to endocrine disruptors, can give you the boost of health and longevity you’re looking for.