Hormones and neurotransmitters are the foundation of your health. These two body systems along with the immune system work nonstop to keep your biological rhythms balanced. When hormones or neurotransmitters are out of balance, too much or not enough, your health will suffer. It may not be immediate, but over time, you will know the effects. All body functions require a hormone or neurotransmitter at some point. Issues as serious as cancer and autoimmune disease or as seemingly small as poor sleep or low libido are all connected to hormones and neurotransmitters. Knowing how to spot imbalances and irregularities in hormones and neurotransmitters can be the key to lasting, great health.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers secreted from the endocrine system and released into the bloodstream. They move through the blood for longer periods of time and connect to the target cell or receptor site. Hormones are responsible for body changes such as puberty, menopause, regulating pregnancy, muscle growth, mood, sleep, and even hair growth and loss. Hormones affect blood sugar, cardiovascular health, and more.
All hormone functions are connected through various feedback loops. This means when one particular hormone is too high or too low, or out of balance compared to another hormone, all the other hormones are affected. This constant balancing act is complex and often oversimplified by conventional medical models that look at only symptoms, and fails to look back through the feedback look to find the initial imbalances causing the problem. This inability, or unwillingness to ask “why”, and understand “why,” is the reason millions of people go untreated for hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances causing them to live with symptoms for years and years while the underlying problem gets worse and worse.
Hormone Feedback Loops: Example
The connection between thyroid hormones and progesterone is a good example of this feedback loop system through which hormones work. Hormones never work in isolation from each other. In many cases of what might look like low thyroid function at first glance, is actually a progesterone issue resulting in estrogen dominance. Most women start to have lower levels of progesterone in their 30’s and this is accelerated through high stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and overload of synthetics in food, body care, and cosmetics. Women younger and younger, and even at the very start of puberty are having low progesterone levels (which is indicative of pitfalls of the American food system and high stress occurring much earlier in life).
This lower progesterone throws the balance of progesterone and estrogen out of whack, creating estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance is too much estrogen compared to progesterone- not necessarily excessive amounts of estrogen. This means a lab test checking estrogen may not detect estrogen dominance if it is not compared to the progesterone levels to see how they are balanced. Too much estrogen compared to progesterone, then causes an increase in a protein called Thyroid Binding Globulin. This actually traps thyroid hormone making it unavailable by the body for its regular use. Therefore creating low thyroid. If only thyroid hormones are looked at when classic thyroid symptoms such as fatigue, hair loss, weight gain, irritability, and poor sleep present, then it is possible a doctor could start a thyroid medication to add more thyroid to the body, when actually the body makes plenty of thyroid on its own but more progesterone is what is really needed.
In this small example, a person could be on an unnecessary medication for years without symptoms improving because the actual problem has never been addressed. This is why the functional medicine team at LifeWorks Integrative Health is passionate and persistent at getting your hormones truly balanced, not just playing “whack a mole” with each symptom that comes up. As mentioned earlier, hormone and neurotransmitters work together in the body and have to be considered in tandem to get to the root of many of today’s complex health issues. This is particularly important when addressing any mood related issues such as depression, anxiety, focus, ADD/ADHD, Autism, Aspergers, Bipolar disorder, irritability and especially addiction.
What Are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters (NT) are released from the presynaptic nerve in the brain. They are messengers that come from the brain and nervous system. They bind to specific receptors which sends electrical signals to a target cell. They work locally and are fast in action unlike hormones which generally take longer to act. NTs are things like serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and many more. NTs are responsible for the way our brain makes sense of most of our feelings which is why they are the key components of mood disorders and mental health. However, many people do not realize the effect NTs can have on sleep and sexual drive/desire. It is estimated that over 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. This is due largely due to lifestyle factors such as: sleep habits, food choices, high stress levels, stressful relationships, and even excessive exercise. Genetic predisposition or vulnerabilities also contribute to the development of neurotransmitter deficiencies. There are two categories of neurotransmitters- inhibitory and excitatory. The balance/levels of neurotransmitters in these two categories are largely responsible for mood, emotions, and brain responses including focus and attention.
While many mental health medications claim to balance or “fix” your brain chemistry in situations of ADD/ADHD, depression, anxiety, OCD and more, most of these medications work to increase or prevent the neurotransmitters connection to the synapse of the neuron in the brain. This means it interferes with the electrical signaling or the receptor site. This interference can have dire long term consequences since the body is amazingly adaptive and will do many things to work around an interference in its normally designed system. This also means other NT levels are affected, hormone levels are affected, and the entire NT system is overworked. A very real and common side effect/risk of mental health medications is receptor site burn out. When overworked, the receptor sites give up and the NT no longer do the signaling they were designed to do. When caught early enough, receptor site function can be regained or saved. (Note: Do not ever stop taking, skip doses, or change dosing of mental health prescription medications you may be currently taking. You must work with a functional medicine doctor and your prescribing doctor to decrease medications in a safe and responsible way)
NT testing is not something your family physician will likely consider, but it is extremely important to consider when dealing with a mental health or mood issue. NT testing is best done through a urine test, and while there are many testing options available, it is imperative that an experienced functional medicine practitioner interpret your results and manage treatment. NTs bind to a receptor site in the brain, and what doesn’t fit or get recognized at the receptor site gets recycled and excreted through the blood and the urine. The excess excreted in the urine is the best way to determine the levels of NTs your body makes and uses. Trained functional medicine practitioners know exactly how to read these results in order to know how best to support you.
While mental health medications are sometimes necessary, it can be problematic to take mental health medications based on symptoms alone. SSRI drugs for depression is a good example of this since when these are taken by a person who has high serotonin levels, (yes you can feel depressed and have high serotonin), the result can be a worsening of symptoms.
Testing NTs is essential for effectively treating mood and mental health issues, yet many symptoms associated with NTs can also be caused by hormone imbalances.
How Are Hormones and Neurotransmitters Connected Connected?
Many people do not realize that symptoms commonly associated with hormone imbalances are also symptoms of NT imbalances. Some NTs that are released in the brain travel through the blood like a hormone to a target location instead of connecting at the neuron level through the synapse. This is called a neurohormone and part of the reason hormones and neurotransmitters are so tightly linked in your body’s biochemistry. You can leave those details to the functional medicine doctors who frequently “geek out” on the overlapping functions and differences in the hormone and neurotransmitter systems. What is most important for you to understand is how each of the common symptoms associated with hormone imbalances can also be a neurotransmitter issue as well. This is why we always recommend testing hormone and neurotransmitters together.
The neurotransmitter and hormone overlap
Symptoms such as low libido, poor sleep, hot flashes during menopause, and fatigue are commonly attributed to hormones such as thyroid, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, but in fact, neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and GABA are often out of optimal ranges when these symptoms occur. The ways in which hormones and neurotransmitters work together requires as trained eye with fundamental understanding of how they are linked. For example, estrogen (hormone) can affect dopamine and serotonin (NT) levels. Progesterone (hormone) levels can disrupt GABA receptors (NT). Cortisol (hormone) levels can be shifted by serotonin (NT) levels. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hormone and NT interplay.
Many practitioners only test hormones, and many fail to do that comprehensively enough to truly understand what is happening in your body as related to your symptoms. Do not settle for being in the dark when it comes to your hormone and brain health. By testing both hormones and neurotransmitters together, you can shine light on the whole picture and have the accurate data for a treatment plan that gets to the root cause of your issues.
To truly understand the root cause of your symptoms of hormone imbalance, or mental health/mood struggles, it is imperative that hormones and neurotransmitters be looked at together through a urine test. Then interpreted in light of your health history, current symptoms, medications, and lifestyle. This is where the functional medicine doctors at LifeWorks Integrative Health are exceptionally skilled. Not only do they have the clinical experience of almost 20 years of working with hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, but also the expert training that assures you they truly understand your test results and how to develop the right treatment plan for you.
Stay tuned for more information on specific hormones, neurotransmitters, and men’s hormone health.