The Endocrine System: Essential for A High-Quality Life

Our body has thousands of internal control systems essential for control of biochemical reactions occurring at the cellular level and other system activities that are essential for life. The endocrine system consists of eight major endocrine glands that secrete chemical substances called hormones. Hormones are transported throughout the body in the fluid outside of the cells. The function of these hormones is to assist in regulating cellular function. An example of such a hormone function is thyroid hormone which increases the rates of the chemical reactions within cells resulting in an increase in cellular metabolism, increasing energy production produced within the cell. The energy produced by the cell is necessary for the cell to be able to do its function (pump blood or move the body around if it is a muscle cell, filter blood if it is a kidney or liver cell, carry nerve impulses if it is a nerve cell, etc.). Another example is insulin which controls the burning of glucose for energy. An additional example are the hormones from the adrenal gland which control sodium and potassium and protein metabolism, and the parathyroid hormone situated above the kidneys which controls bone, calcium and phosphate. Endocrine hormone function is complimentary to the nervous system's ability to control body systems. The nervous system regulates primarily muscle function and the secretion of substances within the body while the hormonal system regulates primarily metabolic (cellular energy) functions. It could be said then that the endocrine system provides chemical messengers that travel throughout the body, taking information and stimulating chemical reactions, therefore essential for having a healthy body and leading a happy, productive life.

Let us look at some specific hormones and their unique significances. Starting with the thyroid, the thyroid hormones are essential in controlling metabolism, cellular energy production. Since our body is made of cells, the ability for the cell to produce energy is directly related to its ability to function normally and to protect itself from damage from the environment. There is ample clinical evidence of below-average thyroid function even though standard thyroid hormone blood tests are within normal range. Functioning thyroid hormone levels are essential and testing hormone status appropriately is also essential to determine whether or not the thyroid supplementation is necessary. Iodine, essential for the thyroid hormones to function properly, is not measured with a standard thyroid hormone blood test. If thyroid dysfunction is suspected, either clinically or from an appropriate temperature test, then evaluating iodine levels would be an appropriate next step. An easy and inexpensive iodine evaluation combined with a temperature test to determine thyroid function yields the most accurate data.

We are all familiar with the role of the sex hormones in contributing to the sexual characteristics of the male and female. The amount of the hormone determines which sexual characteristic you will develop and contributes to the genetic expression of our sex. It may not be well-known, however, that males and females have all of the hormones, including all three estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

Testosterone, in particular, is of interest in both males and females because of its role in muscle strength and muscle function. The heart is essentially all muscle. There is also muscle in walls of arteries. Adequate testosterone levels are important in a circulatory system's normal function and it is not uncommon to prescribe testosterone for men and women when indicated to enhance vascular function. Testosterone deficiencies can also contribute to loss of sex drive (libido) in both men and women. There is a general consensus that aging and decline in testosterone are definitely connected. There is such a thing as male menopause. The signs and symptoms of male menopause vary from patient to patient but can include flushes, erectile dysfunction, reduced erectile quality, diminished night erections, increase in abdominal fat tissue and waist size, joint/muscle aches, and decreased body hair. Physical symptoms that can occur with testosterone deficiency include decreased vigor, decreased strength, reduced muscle mass, a reduction of bone density. The testosterone deficient male can also experience decreased libido, weakness of ejaculation, limited quality of orgasm, and also mood changes, impaired concentration, diminished motivation, reduced memory and depression.

The proper use of estrogens, either one, two or three of them, depending upon the individual patient's needs, and progesterone can be very helpful in retarding the aging process and improved life quality issues primarily for the female. While it is true that as we age our production of hormones decreases, a normal activity, the proper use of bio-identical hormones (hormones that are identical to what the body produces) in proper minimal doses, individualized for each patient, can be very helpful in enhancing life quality.

DHEA stands for dehydroepiandrosterone. DHEA is produced by the adrenal gland and the body makes testosterone and one of the three estrogens from DHEA. DHEA deficiencies can contribute to testosterone, and to some degree, estrogen deficiencies. As more study is done on hormones, we are finding that DHEA can have independent beneficial effects on the aging process.

Estrogens promote growth and development of female reproductive system, including breast and female secondary sexual characteristics. Progesterone stimulates the uterus to retain the fertilized egg and promote growth of the fetus. Estrogens and progesterones again when properly applied in bio-identical form can have a significant impact on the aging process in conjunction with other nutrients and other therapeutic modalities that might be indicated for each individual patient.

There are other hormones with additional varying roles to play but these are the more common endocrine hormones and their levels can be improved with appropriate bio-identical hormone replacement therapy.

Dr Conrad Maulfair, Osteopathic Physician