Hormones are like minions, working away on absolutely everything beneath the surface. When I say everything, I mean it. Hormones are responsible for our growth, mood, energy levels, sleep, metabolism, body mass, strength, muscle mass, heart rate, digestion – you get the idea. Most processes in the body are regulated by hormones – there are even hormones to regulate the hormones. These chemical signallers in the body can keep us healthy or, when out of balance, create dis-ease and disorder.
It is interesting, and reassuring to know that, to some extent, we can change and tweak the levels of many hormones in the body. We do this with the activities we choose to engage in, the way we live, our schedule and the things we eat. Let’s take a closer look at a few that we can easily impact to create a more harmonious and happy internal environment.
The Hormone Cortisol
Most of us have heard of cortisol as the ‘stress hormone’, which is true, but it is also a little misleading. It is a naturally circulating hormone. When we are healthy, Cortisol levels rise in the morning just before waking, and the level peaks 30-40 minutes after waking. It is a natural stimulant to get us going in the morning, kick-starting our metabolism. Cortisol stimulates the adrenals to produce epinephrine and norepinephrine, which increase cardiac output and vasodilation in muscles; we’re ready to rock and roll for the day. Levels naturally decrease through the evening, the body naturally inhibits Cortisol when detecting too much in the system, and levels bottom out around midnight.
If we are under chronic stress we mess up the inhibition of Cortisol and the dark side comes out. Cortisol reduces inflammation and the immune response leaving the body more susceptible to illness. Excess cortisol levels have been shown to decrease Hippocampal volume, the part of the brain associated with memory. It also decreases our REM sleep, the important part of our sleep cycle for replenishing the body. Excess Cortisol can lead to insomnia, chronic fatigue and mood disturbance, and stimulate Leptin production, which, when combined with insulin, increases fat storage. Cortisol can contribute to cravings and also hypothyroidism and increased insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can then lead into Diabetes type 2. We can reduce Cortisol levels with leisure walking, sleep, massage, meditation, yoga, laughing, physical affection – essentially anything relaxing.
The Hormone Insulin
You may not eat sugar but our body breaks down all carbohydrates into the basic glucose form and our cells need this for energy to function. Insulin is the hormone that controls blood glucose levels. After we eat, insulin is released to tell the cells to take up glucose from the blood. If there is an issue with the insulin, as in Diabetes, the glucose stays in the blood causing numerous issues. The potential complications for diabetes include heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, limb amputation, depression, anxiety and blindness. Yoga can actually help to prevent diabetes, as physical activity increases the amount of glucose absorbed by muscles up to 15 times more than in resting. Another study has found yoga increases insulin sensitivity, which is helpful since insulin resistance leaves higher blood glucose levels, which encourages fat storage. This then encourages Leptin production.
The Hormone Leptin
Leptin is a hormone produced by stored fat cells in the body. It regulates energy balance in the body, reduces hunger and increases energy expenditure during exercise to reduce stored fat. Leptin insensitivity leads to storing more fat and energy imbalance. This can be caused by inflammation and chronically high Leptin levels, as in obesity or chronic stress – remember Cortisol has been shown to stimulate Leptin production. Exercise has been shown to reduce Leptin levels over time with a decrease in body mass. As yoga reduces stress and cortisol levels it can help balance out Leptin levels.
The Hormone Melatonin
Melatonin regulates our sleep and wake cycle, or Circadian rhythm. The body begins to release Melatonin as night falls and we start to feel less alert. There is a surge in Melatonin at around 11pm which signals many organs to slow down their activity and regenerate themselves. As the light increases in the morning, Melatonin release is delayed and cortisol increases to wake us. It is a natural rhythm that is disrupted by artificial lighting; the receptors in the eyes are particularly sensitive to blue light, laptops, TV and phones. We can take supplements to help balance our Melatonin, or we could switch off the devices a couple of hours before we want to sleep. We can also dim lights or switch to lamps or candles to help signal the Pineal gland and Melatonin production.
The Hormone Oxytocin
Saving the best till last, Oxytocin is our ‘feel good’ and social hormone. Oxytocin is extremely important in the whole reproductive process, from sexual energy to labour and breastfeeding. It reduces stress and anxiety, lowers Cortisol levels, helps the immune system and even helps to repair and protect our intestinal tract. Oxytocin increases our ability to feel empathy and read social cues. It is released from the Pituitary gland when we feel love, trust, connection and positive, warm experiences. This can come in the form of physical touch like a hug or massage, or even from some food and smells. Essential oils, delicious food, positive social interactions and meaningful conversations will all boost Oxytocin.
All of these hormones impact each other demonstrating the subtle and delicate dance that is equilibrium in the body. It is a fascinating place, the human body, and our yoga practice provides so many more benefits than we can imagine.
Erin Bourne has qualified in Bachelors of Exercise Science and Education as well as completing advanced training in Yoga, Pilates, Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilisation and Myofascial Release.