The mention of hormones usually makes us think of sex, but they go far beyond that. Hormones are chemicals produced by endocrine glands that affect our bodies in many ways both physical and mental, from hunger and weight to sex drive to depression and anxiety.
The thyroid is one of the glands that produces hormones, and the rates at which it produces them can affect energy levels and the way our body uses energy. When the thyroid is producing an excess of a hormone, the body uses energy too quickly; when it is producing too little of a hormone, the body uses energy less efficiently. These levels affect mood, sex drive, and metabolism. Too much hormonal output is called hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, and symptoms include weight loss, irritability, infrequent menstruation, low tolerance to heat, and difficulty sleeping. Too little hormonal output is known as hypothyroidism, and symptoms of this condition include weight gain, fatigue, frequent menstruation, low tolerance to cold, and forgetfulness.
Hormones, of course, affect sexual function. Testosterone, although associated more with men because its prominence in their bodies makes them “masculine” – deeper voices, more hair, bigger muscles – is actually present women as well. In both genders, it drives libido, so when levels are low, people may have less interest in sex or experience sexual dysfunction. Sex hormones, including estrogen, fluctuate radically as we age, causing conditions such as menopause.
Hormones such as leptin regulate and affect process like hunger and weight. This hormone communicates between your brain and the rest of your body, letting your brain know how much energy you have stored: when it senses that you have less energy, because you’ve been eating less and working out more, for example, it tells your brain you’re in starvation mode, setting off signals designed to get you to eat more by increasing hunger so your body can store energy as fat. Imbalances in this hormone can affect weight.
Hormone levels can also affect mood; a common example is PMS. Fluctuations in hormone levels can increase anxiety, depression, and irritability – but these may be related to other mental health issues, so it’s important to get a blood test to help ensure a correct diagnosis.
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