How hormones regulate your body and your life.
TODAY, I will give you an overview of the important role hormones play in regulating our body, our health, and our life. Hormones are poorly understood by most people.
Many who do understand the importance of good nutrition still fail to get the best out of their nutritional programme because of their lack of understanding of the crucial role hormones play in instructing the cells to utilise the nutrients.
Without adequate hormones, some expensive nutritional supplements may just be wasted. Hormones also regulate our appetite, our metabolic rate, and where our fat is deposited. Hormones even influence our behavior and our character!
Many fail to lose weight simply because of abnormal hormones. And many relationships have broken up because of hormonal upheavals. So do not underestimate the importance of hormones in your life.
And if you understand your hormones, you can understand and manage your life better, and you can fine-tune your body to top shape, like how you can tune-up your car engine for peak performance. But first you need to understand the basics of how hormones work.
Insulin – the glucose and metabolic regulator
During the fasting month, many of us were tired and hungry, especially towards the evening, after fasting for over 12 hours. At break-fast time (“buka puasa”), just a glass of cool syrup, sugarcane juice or air bandung (syrup with milk) would quickly recharge the body and restore vitality. Prolonged fasting lowers the blood glucose level, and drinking a sugar-loaded drink restores the glucose to the normal level.
Now, if a higher glucose levels means more energy for us, why is that people with diabetes, who have even much higher glucose levels (beyond the normal range), are not healthier and more energetic? In fact, they are unhealthy, more lethargic, and are prone to diseases of many organs.
The reason is that in the diabetics, the cells are not able to assimilate the glucose (needed for energy production) due to the lack of insulin (in type 1 diabetes mellitus), or due to the failure of the cells to adequately respond to the available insulin (type 2 diabetes mellitus).
Insulin instructs the cells to take in glucose from the blood to be used for metabolism, for storage (as glycogen) or for conversion to fat (for long term storage).
Insulin influences many aspects of our metabolism, and the problem of insulin resistance is the likely common factor for diabetes, dyslipidemia (abnormal fat levels), obesity (especially central or abdominal obesity), and hypertension. These may then lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, liver disease, and even cancer.
The lack of glucose entering the cells severely hampers cell metabolism, and hence the entire body is affected by this disease as all cells require glucose to survive, and to perform their assigned functions. Without sufficient insulin, or normal cell response to insulin, pre-diabetes and diabetes result over time.
Pre-diabetes is easily reversible by weight loss, diet change and exercise, but overt diabetes is much more difficult to reverse, although it is possible.
What happens in the diabetic patient is the classic example of the important role of hormones in regulating our cells, organs, and therefore our overall health.
A similar situation operates with other hormones regulating the utilisation of various macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins), micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc), signal-molecules and other chemicals, and regulating various cellular processes to achieve the best possible functioning body.
Hormones set your cellular thermostat
A simple everyday analogy is this: Suppose you need to iron some clothes. You plug in the iron, switch on the power, and then you have to set the thermostat to the right setting for the job – a different setting for each type of clothing material.
Judicious use of the thermostat will give you the desired results. Too hot and you will burn the clothing, while too low a setting will not get the job done efficiently.
Likewise with the body, each organ and system has to be finely regulated to function in the best way, to maintain the best health, at different “settings” during different phases of our lives, befitting the intended biological function at each phase. This “setting”, instructing the cells and organs to perform optimally, is done by the hormones. There are at least 20 important hormones that we should monitor to know if our body is functioning in the best possible way.
Human growth hormone – the master hormone
From birth, babies have to grow rapidly in size and in developmental milestones, so that they can become fully functional adults. Human growth hormone (HGH, also called somatotropin) is the most crucial hormone at this stage, being responsible for overall growth and health, and influencing many other hormones that regulate the different organ systems.
The HGH level remains high until about age 20, then it steadily declines at about 15% per decade. Thus at age 50, the level is almost 50% down, and by age 80, it is 90% down. Although the decline is “normal” considering the cessation of growth after age 20, and the reduction in physical activity as we age, many people suffer from a rapid decline in HGH level (due to poor diet and lifestyle), causing them to age faster than usual.
Maintaining healthy levels (according to your age) of HGH in adulthood helps ensure overall health – from healthy brain function, to strong bones, healthy heart, muscles, skin and even sexuality and sexual health.
Sexuality and sexual health are usually attributed to the sex hormones (androgens for males, oestrogens for females), but HGH actually plays a very important promotive and supportive role. Note that the decline of HGH precedes the decline in sex hormones, which leads to andropause in men and menopause in women (at about age 50).
The ageing of the whole body (somatopause) due to the decline in HGH occurs well before andropause or menopause. It may be possible to delay andropause/menopause by delaying somatopause. In any case, the harmful effects of andropause/menopause can be significantly mitigated by maintaining excellent health (ie. by delaying somatopause).
HGH can be maintained at healthy levels naturally by having adequate (and deep) sleep, low-calorie protein-rich diet, and intense exercise. Indeed this sounds like the general advice given by all health advocates. At least you now know one scientific explanation why these measures help.
Adequate sleep also allows your body to rest and repair, besides promoting normal levels of some other hormones. A low-calorie diet prevents obesity and (in animal studies) has been shown to protect against chronic degenerative diseases (like diabetes and heart disease) and activate the longevity genes.
Since HGH is a peptide hormone (made of amino-acids), the diet must contain enough protein necessary to manufacture the hormones. Intense exercise increases muscle mass and promotes cardiovascular health. The improved circulation benefits the entire body as oxygen and nutrient delivery is improved.
Children who are severely deficient in HGH fail to grow, and become dwarfs (but their bodies are in the correct proportion, as opposed to those with achondroplasia, who have shortened limbs but normal-sized heads). Excess HGH will cause giantism, with broad faces, hands and feet.
In both conditions, those afflicted are not healthy and do not live long. Hormones have to be within their normal ranges. Too little or too much will cause malfunction, disease or even early death. Those with severe HGH deficiency (children and adults) are treated with HGH injections while those with excess (usually due to a pituitary tumor) will need the appropriate medical treatments to normalise the hormone levels.
While maintaining healthy HGH levels through natural means described above is accepted, there is much controversy on the necessity, effectiveness and safety of improving the levels in otherwise healthy people (in the hope of achieving maximum health) or in those with mild or moderate deficiency. There are claims that HGH secretagogues (amino-acid supplements) or even homeopathic preparations can improve HGH levels, but these have not been proven by peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Hormones, optimum health and ageing
Ageing means slowing down of cellular metabolism, decline in functions and accumulation of defects and dysfunction. Some organs age faster than others, and thus become more prone to disease. The skin is the best example to illustrate the different rates of ageing, since it is the organ most exposed to scrutiny, and also most exposed to the damaging effects of the sun.
There are people who are fit and healthy, but because they are outdoors often (and don’t use sunblock), they look old because of their skin-ageing. Declining hormones (HGH, sex hormones, etc) and years of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise (which is the typical scenario with most people in the modern world) exacerbate the ageing process even further.
The ageing of the internal organs – brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, etc. are more important, and hormones play important roles in regulating all of them. Correcting the hormones will help ensure these organs function well, and slow down their ageing.
With ageing, most of the hormones decline, but some increase (eg. insulin), and some become unbalanced (eg. androgen-oestrogen ratios in both men and women; oestrogen-progestogen ratio in women). All these have to be corrected if ageing is to be slowed down to maintain youthful health. The detailed study of these hormones and their correction is the subject which doctors involved in anti-ageing medicine have to relearn because much of the science is only recently understood.
I have given an overview of the important role hormones play, and have mentioned only a few of the more than 20 hormones we need to monitor and optimise. I will explain in more detail about these hormones in future articles. You may be surprised with some of the improvements that you can achieve by optimising these hormones.
Malaysian anti-ageing doctors are fortunate that Dr Theirry Hertoghe, one of the world’s foremost endocrinologists and author of The Hormone Handbook, has been coaching us with the most updated and comprehensive information in this field. His clinical expertise/experience is extensive, and the rich and famous from all over the world seek his advice.
He has offered to partner with a local medical institution to transfer his knowledge and expertise to local and regional doctors. I hope his offer is taken up, otherwise that privilege will go to an institution in a neighbouring country, and we will miss the chance of being a centre of excellence in this field.