What are hormones?
To better understand how hormones impact our biology, it is important to describe and define hormones.
Hormones are chemicals that coordinate different functions in the body by carrying messages through the bloodstream to the organs, muscles and tissues. These messages or signals tell the body what to do and when to do it.
Hormones are part of the endocrine system which works as a messenger system consisting of glands that produce and release hormones. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and pineal gland are found in the brain. The thyroid and parathyroid glands are found in the neck. The thymus is located between the lungs. The adrenals are on top of the kidneys and finally the pancreas which is behind the stomach.
Over 50 hormones have been identified in the human body so far: some of the most known are, for example, Testosterone, Insulin, Cortisol, Adrenaline, Progesterone, Dopamine, and Growth Hormone.
Hormones control many different bodily processes such as:
- Homeostasis (constant internal balance) such as blood pressure and blood sugar regulation, fluid and electrolyte balance and body temperature
- Growth and development
- Sexual function
- Sleep-wake cycle
How are hormones produced?
Endocrine tissues secrete hormones. Chemically, hormones can be classified as either proteins or steroids. Hormone production and release are mainly controlled by negative feedback which functions as follows: a stimulus elicits the release of a substance; once the substance reaches a certain level, it sends a signal that stops further release of this substance. This system helps maintain the concentration of hormones in blood within the range.
There are three mechanisms by which endocrine glands are stimulated to compose and secrete hormones: humoral stimuli, hormonal stimuli, and neural stimuli. A humoral stimulus refers to the control of hormone release in response to changes in extracellular fluids such as blood. For example, when blood sugar rises, it triggers the pancreas to release insulin. On the other hand, insulin causes blood glucose levels to drop which sends signals to the pancreas to stop producing insulin in a negative feedback loop.
The second mechanism, which is the hormonal stimuli, refers to the release of hormones in response to another hormone. Some of the endocrine glands release hormones when stimulated by hormones released by other endocrine glands. And once the levels of these hormones reach a certain range in the blood, they inhibit the glands again in a negative feedback loop.
As for the third mechanism which is the neural stimuli, the nervous system directly stimulates endocrine glands to release hormones. When the body responds to stress, adrenaline is released. In this situation, the neural stimulus originates from the sympathetic nervous system and it directly stimulates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline in a response to stress.
Specific male hormones
Men and women have the same hormone network, both with a complex interplay between hormones. Some hormones are known specifically as ‘male’ hormones but they are also present in women just at different amounts. Although men's hormones don't fluctuate quite as dramatically as women's over a monthly cycle, they still significantly impact men's health and well-being, beyond reproduction. Although male hormones are mostly associated with fertility, there are a range of hormones that play a crucial role in men's health, both physical and mental.
The followings are the major hormones:
- Sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG)
- Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH)
Most common imbalances and symptoms
When it comes to hormones, a little goes a long way. This means that minor changes or imbalances will result in significant changes in the body. Some hormonal imbalances can be temporary while others are chronic. Some require treatment to become physically healthy again, while others will affect the quality of life. The most common imbalances include those that affect the metabolism resulting in symptoms such as:
- Slow or rapid heartbeat
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Numbness or tingling in the hands
- Increased level of blood cholesterol
- Depression or anxiety
- Skin and hair changes; becoming dry or thin
- Irregular body fat distribution
- Extreme thirst and frequent urination
As for the sex hormones imbalances in the male body, the followings are the common symptoms for such imbalances:
- Decrease or loss of body hair
- Erectile dysfunction
- Enlarged breast tissue (Gynecomastia)
- Decreased libido
- Loss of muscle mass
Biomarkers are measurable chemical characteristics of the body. They allow a comprehensive picture of what might be the cause of symptoms and conditions.
Either to assess trends, improve health or address diseases, blood markers allow interrelationship analysis of one’s physiology.
In the following sections, some of the male hormonal biomarkers are explained as to why it is important to test when looking for a diagnosis, disease prevention and health optimization.
Testosterone is the most important androgen (male sex hormone). It plays a key role in the development of male reproductive tissues such as the testes and prostate. It is also responsible for promoting secondary sexual characteristics such as increased muscle and bone mass, and the growth of body hair. In addition to that, testosterone is involved in general health and well-being, including moods and behaviour. Moreover, it is essential in the prevention of osteoporosis. Testosterone in men is thought to regulate libido, bone mass, fat distribution, muscle mass and strength, and the production of red blood cells and sperm.
Having explained the importance of testosterone, it is essential to differentiate between total testosterone and free testosterone. Testosterone is found in the bloodstream in two different forms; the complete form in which testosterone is attached to proteins, and the free form in which it is not attached to proteins.
Free testosterone which is not attached to proteins is the active form and it is the one that acts on the tissues since it is not bound and can enter the cell. It is actually the free testosterone that is responsible for the traits which occur in the body. When testing total testosterone levels and free testosterone levels, it is critical to test for both of these biomarkers as this helps provide more context.
FSH and LH
Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing hormone (LH) along with testosterone are the primary hormones involved in the functioning of the male reproductive system. FSH is a hormone regulated by the pituitary gland located in the brain and it regulates growth, sexual development and fertility. In males, it is required for sperm production.
Prolactin is a hormone made by the pituitary gland. Mainly, prolactin levels are high in pregnant women and new mothers. However, testing the level of prolactin in the blood is used to investigate conditions such as erection problems and decreased libido.
Oestradiol is the most important form of the hormone oestrogen although it is a minor hormone in males. Testing for oestradiol levels in the blood is used to shed light on metabolic and cardiovascular health, bone density and blood sugar regulation.
Sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG)
SHBG is a protein that is made mostly in the liver. It binds to sex hormones that are in the bloodstream. SHBG helps control the number of sex hormones that are actively working in the body. If the level of SHBG is high, then the body will not have enough free testosterone. On the other hand, a low level of SHBG consequently means higher levels of free testosterone in the bloodstream.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)
TSH biomarkers indicate whether there is a thyroid problem. If the TSH level is too low this means that the thyroid gland is secreting excess thyroid hormone and this can result in irregular or rapid heartbeat (palpitations), feeling anxious and vision problems. Whereas if the TSH level is low, it may indicate that the thyroid is not making enough thyroid hormone.
Cortisol is often called the "stress hormone" as it is the hormone that helps the body to respond to stress. It affects almost every organ and tissue. High levels of cortisol can increase blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension as well as disturb the digestive system causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate. DHEA is a male sex hormone that is found in both men and women and it plays an important role in the making of the testosterone and oestrogen hormones. DHEA-sulphate is a biomarker that tests the level of DHEA in the blood. If the level is not within the normal/optimal range, it could indicate a problem with the adrenal glands or with the sex organs- testicles or ovaries.
Progesterone is a hormone produced on the adrenal glands that is later transformed into testosterone. In males, It plays an important role on sleep and emotional health and balances unopposed oestrogen, preventing oestrogen domination and related symptoms.
Vitamin D (25 OH)
Vitamin D (calciferol) is a fat-soluble vitamin that is vital for the body as it helps it to absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus. Before it can be used, vitamin D goes through several processes in the body; the first of which takes place in the liver where it transforms vitamin D into a chemical known as 25-hydroxy vitamin D. Testing for vitamin D 25-hydroxy is the best way to monitor the levels of vitamin D in the bloodstream. Also, this test can be an important indicator of osteoporosis.
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein produced by normal prostate cells. It is an enzyme that participates in the dissolution of the seminal fluid coagulum and hence it plays a vital role in male fertility. Testing the PSA level indicates any possible problems or tumours in the prostate.
In essence, hormones are a major factor interplaying and overlapping resulting in serious conditions. Therefore, it is advised to perform regular tests, especially when displaying concerning symptoms.
Lifestyle factors can play a large role in hormone regulation and optimisation and by testing we can determine where the issue may be coming from. Sometimes it's as simple as improving your sleep, increasing protein in your diet or getting more of specific micronutrients such as zinc or omega 3 fatty acids.
Exercise can also have a large impact: over or under training will affect your hormonal balance. By assessing these levels through tests we can indicate your body's response and make better choices around which type and intensity of exercise should be engaged in.
At Omnos we believe testing is the bedrock of health optimisation and as the symptoms for hormone disruption can be so similar between different types of imbalance it is often vital to test rather than guess if you want to avoid painful trial and error.
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