The endocrine system and hormonal regulation
What is the endocrine system, and why should we care? The endocrine system is a complex system of glands which secrete hormones. Hormones are like little chemical messengers that communicate to specific organs in order to regulate a particular function.
When you hear the word hormones, what comes to mind? For many of us, we think about hormones of the female reproductive system, such as estrogen or progesterone. Did you know that there are over 50 hormones in the human body? Hormones help to regulate many biological processes, including sexual development and reproduction, development of the brain and nervous system, metabolism, blood pressure, and more.
In order for our bodies to be in balance and us to be in optimal health, our hormones must work in harmony. Any disruption to the function of one hormone can impact another, leading to an imbalance of the whole system. Such hormonal imbalances can contribute to many symptoms we often don’t think of as being related to hormones, such as anxiety, insomnia, headaches, weight gain, skin disorders, irregular menstrual cycles, PMS, unexplained infertility, and many others. So, what can we do to help ensure our endocrine system is functioning optimally?
How sugar impacts our hormones
As it turns out, unstable blood sugar is a major culprit behind many hormonal imbalances. When we eat sugar or refined carbohydrates, the glucose derived from those foods enter our bloodstream. This is what’s known as our blood sugar level. The body doesn’t like too much sugar in the blood, and so when it increases, it signals to the pancreas to produce and release the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job is to move the excess glucose from our blood into our cells, where it is used for energy. The excess sugar that cannot be used in our cells moves into the liver, where it is stored as a form of energy called glycogen.
Consuming more sugar than our body needs sends the excess glucose into our fat cells for storage, leading to weight gain. Incidentally, the more fat cells we have, the higher our estrogen levels are, as fat cells increase estrogen in the body. In addition, these extra fatty deposits from excess glucose also are stored in the liver, which hinders the liver’s ability to break down excess estrogen. A buildup of estrogen is often the cause of menstrual and fertility issues, and so the liver’s job of eliminating excess estrogen is critically important.
When our blood sugar levels get too low, as happens when we haven’t eaten for a few hours, another hormone (called glucagon) steps in to convert the stored energy back into usable energy, a process which requires effort from the liver . This necessary regulation ensures our brain, heart, and muscles have the energy required to function, but the effort required on the liver also diverts its attention away from its job of eliminating excess estrogen and other toxins from the body.
If we intentionally focus on stabilizing our blood sugar through the foods we eat, we allow our liver to focus on detoxification. This is also why it’s important to have regular bowel movements, as there needs to be a vehicle for the elimination of excess estrogen. If you are not having regular bowel movements, speak to your acupuncturist, as this is something they can work with you on regulating.
Regulating our blood sugar
The process of controlling blood sugar is a constant balancing act, and becomes more challenging the more excess sugar we consume. The more sugary and processed foods we consume, the harder our bodies need to work at producing insulin to counteract the excess glucose. In time, this can cause our cells to become resistant to insulin, leading to a variety of issues including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and PCOS. Insulin resistance has also been associated with infertility.
Now, for the good news! By eating the right foods, at regular intervals, and limiting our intake of processed sugars, we can stabilize our blood sugar levels and avoid the spikes and crashes that inevitably leave us feeling drained and exhausted. More importantly, learning to stabilize our blood sugar will in turn stabilize our hormones and safeguard our health.
So, how do we manage our blood sugar? The goal is to eat consistent and well-portioned meals so that we maintain a stable level, avoiding the highs and lows that we’ve discussed. In her book, The Woman Code, functional nutritionist Alisa Vitti lays out a system for stabilizing blood sugar levels. Here are a few of her recommendations:
- Start your day with a glass of water. Either room temperature, or warm water with lemon is best.
- Always eat breakfast, and within the first hour and a half of waking. It’s important to eat breakfast before consuming that first cup of coffee or tea.
- Breakfast should include protein (think eggs, black beans, turkey bacon)
- In order to avoid blood sugar from getting too low, snacks or small meals should be consumed every 2-3 hours. Healthy snacks include almonds, avocado, and hummus with veggies.
- Avoid grains at dinner, and instead choose steamed veggies and a lean protein.
- When you eat a few too many carbs, go for a walk! Exercise helps the body reduce the glucose load by directly using it as fuel for the muscles.
Blood sugar and immunity
If achieving hormonal balance is not motivation enough, there’s more good news: regulating glucose has also been linked to immune health. High levels of blood glucose appear to increase the inflammatory response in the body, which in turn negatively affects our immune response and our ability to fight infection. On the flip side, lower glucose levels seem to be anti-inflammatory; reducing inflammation through proper diet allows the immune system to operate optimally. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, enhancing our resistance to disease is more welcome than ever.
Acupuncture is another great way to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, and help with hormonal balance. If you’re interested in learning more about how Chinese Medicine can support you and your health, please reach out to any of the practitioners at the Yinova Center for more information.
- Vitti, A. (2014). Woman code: Perfect your cycle, amplify your fertility, supercharge your sex drive, and become a power source. HarperOne.
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- Sugar and the brain. Sugar and the Brain | Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/sugar-brain
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