Hormone Lesson 1: What’s The Hypothalamus Gotta Do With It?

Before we talk hormones, we gotta talk hypo.

And not the kind of “hypo” you might be thinking. Nope, we’re not talking hypothyroid…we’re talking hypothalamus.

Why in the world am I talking about this random piece of the brain when we’re supposed to talk hormones? Well, this hippopotamus-sounding portion of your noggin’ is what oversees ALL those important hormones. No hypothalamus, no sexy time (plus…you’d be dead. And that would be a bummer).

Here’s where the hypothalamus is located:

Credit: Brain Made Simple

Yup, that random, small bean-looking thing wields a LOTTA power.

So how does it work, exactly? It’s basically mission control for your body, including your pituitary gland, which is the MASTER of all the glands in the land. This pea-sized pint-of-a-gland packs a full punch, including making:

  • Prolactin, which stimulates that nutritious breast milk after giving birth
  • Growth hormone – not just for kids anymore! This helps our bone and muscle mass as adults
  • Adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which basically gets you outta bed in the morning (and can also keep you up at night!)
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), without which you would have no thyroid function, and therefore be a zombie
  • Luteinizing hormone (LH), which men like because it stimulates their testosterone production and (some) women like because it makes them ovulate! Ladies, even if you are one of the those who would rather not ovulate because you don’t want kids and you think your period is a pain in the ass, trust me, you want solid LH levels, otherwise you’d be out progesterone, and ask a perimenopausal or menopausal woman how THAT feels.
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Dudes love it because where else would their sperm come from? The ladies love it because it stimulates the ovaries to produce estrogen and develop eggs (besides estrogen being important for fertility, it’s good for women because it builds bone and muscle, keeps that aging clock from ticking too darn fast, boosts the happy molecule, serotonin, and it makes us want sexy time. We just don’t want TOO much estrogen, which we’ll discuss in a later post).
  • Antidiuretic hormone (ADH), so you don’t get all dehydrated and shizz
  • Oxytocin, the LOVE molecule (also causes milk to flow from post-partum breasts, and helps in the labor process).

Yeah, the pituitary does a LOT. All that from this teeny tiny thing:

Credit: HypoGal

Notice where it is? RIGHT in front of the hypothalamus! It’s like they’re BFF. Or dom/sub. You decide.

So yeah, the hypothalamus is basically working its ass off to maintain homeostasis in your body. Because its role of “ruler of the universe” is not only about instructing the pituitary to get on top of producing all the hormones listed above, but it’s also the go-between, if you will, between your endocrine (stuff mentioned above) and nervous (making all those crazy nerves and organs work) systems.

Yes, apparently your endocrine and nervous system just couldn’t get along, so they were assigned a mediator. The hypothalamus, aka Mission Control, gets a signal from your body that say, your temperature is too high, and your hypothalamus is like, “k, body, it’s time to sweat.” Likewise, if your thyroid isn’t doing what it needs to do – produce T3 and T4 – your hypothalamus is dialed in and will signal your pituitary to make more thyroid-stimulating hormone.

What’s the story with estrogen, then?

Don’t worry, we’ll be getting way deep into estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (yup, women have it too!) in later posts, but for now, I wanted to be clear on how your hypothalamus impacts your estrogen and progesterone production.

The hyptothalamus releases gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) → stimulates pituitary to make follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) AND luteinizing hormone (LH)

FSH → produces follicles during first part of your cycle → dominant follicle wins → increases estrogen

High estrogen (estradiol) → stimulates release of LH from pituitary → dominant follicle releases egg

Dominant follicle becomes corpus luteum (from the LUTEINIZING hormone, and moving into your LUTEAL phase, eh??) → secrets progesterone

Again, I’ll be explaining this whole process in more depth later on, so don’t worry if you are currently like, “huh?”

Hypothalamus and Pituitary Health

So how are your sex hormones impacted if you have an issue with your hypothalamus or pituitary? Well, since the hypothalamus oversees so many hormones, it can be hard to pinpoint if you are specifically having a hypothalamus issue or just a particular hormone issue. But there are a few things that research has shown help support hypothalamus function:

As for the pituitary, really all the things mentioned above help it too, but tumors tend to be the biggest issue when it comes to the pituitary being “off.” So if you can’t figure out why your hormones are out of whack AND you have thyroid issues and have ruled out all the other possible reasons it isn’t working properly, I recommend seeing an endocrinologist to rule out a tumor.

Okay ladies and gentlemen, I think that’s enough for today. Tune in next week for lesson 2!

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