The endocrine system is the system by which biochemical substances, called hormones, are made by endocrine glands. These hormones are then injected into the body’s circulatory system and goes to work on various parts of the body, often quite far away from where it had been produced in the gland. Hormones take a little while to start working, but once these get going, their effects are often prolonged, lasting hours if not weeks. We cannot survive without our hormones.
Like many other branches of medical science, the Chinese have been ahead of the game of endocrinology (the specialty in medicine that focuses on the endocrine system). It is believed that Chinese healers extracted reproductive and pituitary hormones from urine to use as medicine as far as 2,200 years ago. At the same time, the word “hormone” is only slightly more than a hundred years old, coined by English physiologists in 1902.
We have the following endocrine glands in our body: the hypothalamus, pineal gland, pituitary gland, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus and adrenal gland. (Although the pancreas, ovaries and testes also are endocrine glands, they are classified under the digestive system in the case of the pancreas and the reproductive system in the case of the latter two).
The hypothalamus (in the brain) is the major nerve control centre for many of the hormones secreted by our bodies. By various hormones it stimulates or blocks the secretion of hormones especially in the pituitary gland, but also in our kidneys. The pituitary gland in turn produces hormones that control our thyroid gland, milk production, growth patterns, adrenal gland and reproductive glands. The thyroid gland regulates the rate at which our body metabolizes, controls our heart and digestive function, helps control our muscles and bone maintenance and is crucial to brain development. The tiny—each about the size and weight of a grain of rice—four parathyroid glands control how our body manages its calcium levels.
The pineal gland produces melatonin, and helps us to establish our daily bodily rhythms, and also plays a role in the regulation of our reproductive hormones. The thymus hangs around in our bodies only until about the end of our puberty, and plays a major role in training and developing our T-cells. (These guys, along with cells called the B-cells, hunt and destroy germs in our body). The adrenal glands are producing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, essential to our survival in the fight/flight/freeze behavioural patterns.
How can we best take care of these diverse and essential organs of our bodies?
- Be sparing in our alcohol intake. Alcohol can mess up the regulation of blood-sugar levels, reduce testosterone in men, and make it more likely to suffer from osteoporosis due to its negative effect on the parathyroid hormone.
- Eat wisely. Include as much whole food, plant based options as we can. Vegetables, leafy greens, fresh fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds provide all the minerals, vitamins, protein and the necessary fatty acids to optimize our endocrine health.
- Sleep enough. Seven to eight hours’ good sleep is the optimum time that the body needs to take care of many of its maintenance and reset functions, chief amongst which are the neurological and endocrine systems.
- Exercise in stress-reducing ways. Yoga, mindfulness exercises, and plain old walking tend to help the endocrine system more than kick-boxing or rock climbing. (Though there are those amongst us who do find these soothing—it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around J).