I am passionate about helping women understand why it is so important to keep hormones balanced so they can do the jobs they’re meant to do. Hormones can have such a tremendous impact on the way a woman is feeling, and her overall health.
One of the things I realized recently is that I make a lot of references to the endocrine system when I’m talking about specific hormones, but I haven’t really talked about what the endocrine system is. I’ve assumed you know – and if that’s caused confusion, I apologize!
It’s hard to understand just how important each and every hormone is if you don’t know how connected they all are. It’s that connection that means that if one hormone is out of balance, it’s really easy for the others to go awry as well.
Let’s take a closer look at the endocrine system – the function of each gland and how they all work together to create hormonal harmony. Then I’ll talk about what can interrupt endocrine function and give you some tips on keeping your overall endocrine system healthy and strong.
What is the Endocrine System Function?
Your endocrine system is the complex set of glands that secrete the hormones which regulate all of your body’s major functions: growth and development, metabolism, tissue function, reproduction, sexual function, mood, and sleep. That’s a lot of important work, and it’s not even close to everything the endocrine system is responsible for!
Hormones are your body’s communication system. They travel through your bloodstream carrying important messages that regulate how your internal processes function. The glands in your endocrine system produce, store, and release these hormones. Each gland manufactures specific hormones and send them out to call for a particular response in other cells, tissues and organs throughout your body.
If any gland in your endocrine system isn’t working the way it should, producing too much or too little of certain hormones, you could experience a range of problems. These might include fertility issues, problems in puberty, difficulty managing stress, fatigue, weak bones, and weight gain.
Other parts of the endocrine system can’t compensate for difficulties in one of the glands. In fact, the opposite is true. A problem with just one piece of the complex network can create a cascade of other issues, since the messages relayed by hormones will be garbled. It’s like that old game “Telephone” we played when we were kids — one word whispered incorrectly could change everything! But while the game often ended up in laughter, there’s nothing funny about misinterpreted messages in your endocrine system.
What Are the Glands That Make Up the Endocrine System?
Hormone production happens in many organs, tissues, and glands throughout the body. The major glands of the endocrine system are the primary producers of specific hormones, though small amounts of these same hormones might be also be made elsewhere in the body.
The primary glands in the endocrine system are the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, pineal gland, thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, ovaries (in women) and testes (in men). These glands are spread throughout your body, from your brain to your pelvic region. You can find a chart detailing the major glands and their hormones here. Let’s take a quick look at the impact of each gland in your body.
Your hypothalamus is the key to connecting your endocrine system and your nervous system. The primary function of the hypothalamus is to let your pituitary gland when it’s time to begin or end hormone production.
Your pituitary gland is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle. Often called the “master gland,” the pituitary interprets information received from the brain to give other glands instructions. Many vital hormones are produced in the pituitary, including human growth hormone ( It spurs growth in children and adolescents. It also helps to regulate body composition, body fluids, muscle and bone growth, and possibly heart function), prolactin (which helps women produce milk when breastfeeding), and luteinizing hormone, which manages sex hormones.
The pineal gland is located in the brain as well, and secretes melatonin, a hormone key in promoting healthy sleep.
In this gland, thyroid hormones are produced. One of the main functions of thyroid hormones is to control metabolism. That’s why so many people have difficulty if thyroid hormone levels are out of balance. Your body could be operating in slow motion, or on hyperspeed! Other important processes impacted by thyroid hormones include growth, temperature regulation, digestion, fertility, and skin maintenance. I have many articles on the impact of imbalanced thyroid hormones in the thyroid section of my health library.
Though discussed far less often than some of the other glands, these four miniscule glands located behind the thyroid are important to bone health, since a hormone produced here controls calcium and phosphorus levels in the body.
Women are hearing more and more about the adrenal glands these days, especially when talking about stress. The adrenals produce hormones that help manage stress, including adrenaline and cortisol. But dealing with stress isn’t the only function of the adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands produce hormones you literally can’t live without, including hormones that help convert food to energy, regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular function, manage immune response, and decrease inflammation.
The pancreas is part of the digestive system, as well as a crucial part of your endocrine system. Insulin and glucagon are hormones produced here that help regulate blood sugar levels in your blood and cells. Without enough insulin, blood sugar levels rise, causing a wide range of uncomfortable – and potentially life threatening – symptoms.
These glands are responsible for the production of sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone in women, testosterone in men), which impact both libido (sexual desire) and fertility.
The major glands are just the beginning. It would take far too long to detail the impact of every hormone produced, and every potential hiccup in the communication process. Suffice it to say that a well functioning endocrine system is essential to feeling your best. If the signals this system is sending out are disrupted by toxins or disease, hormonal balance can quickly be skewed – and you’ll know it by the symptoms that won’t go away until the problem is addressed!
Endocrine Disease and Disruption
Balanced hormone levels are so important to looking and feeling your best. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of what your symptoms might be telling you. The list of endocrine diseases and disorders is long and varied. And because symptoms overlap so much between various hormonal imbalances, it can be difficult and frustrating to uncover just which one you are impacted by.
Treatment for endocrine diseases centers around controlling how much of particular hormones your body produces (if you tend to produce too much) or boosting levels of hormones in your body (if you don’t have enough). Often, for conventional practitioners, that means giving you a prescription. But there are many ways you can treat hormonal imbalances naturally, especially if you catch the problem before your levels are too skewed.
There are many factors that can impact your hormone levels even if an endocrine disease is not present. These include genetic disorders, infection, injury to a gland, or tumors in a gland, among other problems. Some of these things are out of your control, but if you do everything in your power to keep hormone levels balanced, you have a far better chance of staying healthy even when these barriers are present.
In addition to all the things that can happen internally to disrupt your endocrine system, it’s important to be aware of the role that external factors can play. Today’s modern lifestyle comes with a host of toxins surrounding us. If we don’t know about these, and the impact they can have on our hormone levels, we can’t make the best choices for our own health. Chemicals in our environment that mimic hormones when absorbed by humans and animals are called endocrine disruptors.
Environmental Endocrine Disruptors
Research is growing on the negative effects of certain chemicals that are everywhere we turn. It’s difficult to determine exactly how damaging these chemicals are, and more research is certainly needed. But I’ve read and studied enough to firmly believe that exposure to endocrine disruptors in the products we use, the water we drink, and the air that we breathe is at least partially responsible for the high number of women who experience hormonal imbalances and endocrine issues.
Because these chemicals are everywhere, exposure is impossible to avoid altogether. Lucky for us, our bodies have a build in detoxification system to rid themselves of foreign substances. Unfortunately, when we are exposed to overwhelming amounts of toxic chemicals, it can be very difficult for that detox system to keep up.
The list of endocrine disruptors is long and can be quite confusing if you don’t have a scientific background. But information is power, and trying to sort out some of the most common chemicals is worth the time it takes. While growing awareness has inspired some changes in manufacturing, and the types of products that can include some of these chemicals, we have a long way to go.
Some particularly common – and dangerous – chemicals to be on the lookout for include bisphenol-A, phthalates, parabens, PBDE’s, PCB’s, Dioxin, pesticides and herbicides, and heavy metals. The Environmental Working Group is a great source of information on products that contain these chemicals, and better choices available.
5 Tips to Keep Your Endocrine System Functioning Smoothly
Finding ways to support your endocrine glands with healthy lifestyle choices is vital to feeling your best. This advice shouldn’t surprise you much, but it might serve as just the reminder you need to make good choices. The more conscious you are of the important ways you can support your body, the better!
1. Managing Stress is Paramount
Chronic stress is damaging to your physical health and your mental health. It robs you of vitality, and puts excess strain on all of the glands in your endocrine system. Taking the time to step away from constant external demands and find inner peace isn’t selfish – it’s survival! Too many women feel guilty if they dare take even a few minutes to themselves – and that guilt actually makes the problem worse! Give yourself permission to stop, breathe deeply, and recognize that stress relief isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity!
There is no wrong way to relieve stress — the key is to find something that works for you. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing work for many. But if the idea of sitting quietly makes you anxious, try a vigorous hike, a dance class, or a social event with friends. The important thing is to find something that quiets the worry and allows you to be fully present in whatever moment you are experiencing.
2. Good Nutrition Really Does Make a Difference
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: food is the best medicine we have. I’ve seen so many women – myself included – find abundant energy and rid themselves of painful symptoms just by being attentive to what they’re putting in their bodies.
Choosing organic foods whenever possible, and limiting consumption of animal fat and certain types of fish, can help you avoid some of the most common endocrine disruptors. Learn which crops are more heavily sprayed with pesticides, and choose organic for these at the very least. The EWG’s Dirty Dozen list is a great place to start.
A wide range of fruits and vegetables can help provide you with all of the essential nutrients your body needs. Garlic is a powerful nutrient for maintaining endocrine function, as it helps maintain normal blood sugar levels, and can help reduce cholesterol and act as a blood thinner as well. Other herbs, like ginkgo and ginseng, may also help keep your endocrine system functioning smoothly.
Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids help hormones move through your body efficiently. These fatty acids also aid in kidney functioning and blood circulation. Consuming foods high in omegas is a great way to support your endocrine system. Look at your options:
Cold water fatty fish, like wild Alaskan salmon, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines; flaxseed oil or flaxseeds; pumpkin seeds; sesame seeds; avocados; some dark green leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach, collard greens, and mustard greens.
Seeds, like pumpkin seeds or raw sunflower seeds; nuts, like pine nuts and pistachios; hemp seeds or hemp seed oil; flaxseeds or flaxseed oil; grapeseed oil; and acai.
This isn’t technically considered an essential fatty acid, since your body is able to manufacture it. But omega 9 (oleic acid) plays a role in prevention of cancer, and reducing risk of heart attacks and arteriosclerosis, so eating foods that contain oleic acid is still important. These foods include extra virgin olive oil; olives; avocados; nuts; and sesame oil.
3. Sweat Out Toxins with Regular Exercise – But Don’t Overdo!
Sweating is a great way to rid your body of toxins, and regular exercise is a great way to keep yourself healthy. There are so many benefits to moving more, and exercise helps endocrine functioning by boosting important hormone levels circulating in your blood, as well as strengthening receptor sites. Exercise can increase your metabolic rate, help regulate blood sugar, increase blood flow, and reduce tension and anxiety.
But too much exercise can have the opposite effect, placing strain on your glands and decreasing endocrine function. So it’s important to find the right balance for yourself, especially if you are already experiencing signs of hormonal imbalances.
4. Avoid Products with Heavy Chemical Loads
Choosing products wisely – from cosmetics and skin care to the containers we store food and drinks in – can limit your exposure to all those endocrine disrupting chemicals. Read labels carefully and avoid using products that contain known endocrine disruptors. When storing food and drink, use glass mason jars or stainless steel water bottles instead of plastics. Find soaps, shampoos, and skin care products that won’t add to your toxic burden. It will take some vigilance, but it gets easier once you know which brands are best. And it’s worth it!
5. Supplement for Maximum Support
You can’t avoid all toxins, no matter how hard you try. That’s why it’s important to give your body a boost – especially when you’re experiencing symptoms. A high-quality multivitamin, along with essential fatty acid supplements, can give you the nutrient base you need to thrive. The food you eat is important, but so much of the food supply is either tainted by toxins or depleted of nutrients due to industrial practices that you simply can’t count on it being enough. If your hormone levels are already suffering, targeted supplementation can promote relaxation, healthy sleep, and support those important glands.
Support Your Endocrine System to Enjoy Your Best Life!
Your body is a complex machine made up of many intricate systems. Balance is key to sustaining good health, and your endocrine system is at the heart of hormonal balance. Knowing how it’s all connected, and how you can keep this system thriving, can give you the best shot at enjoying life to its fullest.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD