Build a healthier, stronger, and sexier you by getting to know your body's chemical messengers
Although you can’t feel them, your endocrine system is constantly churning out hormones that control everything from your heart rate, to your metabolism, mood, sex drive, appetite, and more. But how well do you know these chemical messengers, which allow your body’s organs to communicate with one another and keep your system humming? So we rounded up 20 of the most important hormones women should know so you can take full advantage of all of their effects for a healthier, stronger, and sexier you.
The most well-known female sex hormone is produced in your ovaries and sets off puberty, regulates your menstrual cycle, helps maintain pregnancy, and keeps your bones strong. Excess estrogen—especially after menopause when levels drop—is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, dementia, uterine cancer, and more. Maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, keeping your alcohol intake to less than one drink per day, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet can help regulate estrogen levels throughout your lifetime.
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A key player in your menstrual cycle, progesterone levels rise after ovulation and prepare your uterus for a fertilized egg. When pregnancy doesn’t occur, progesterone levels drop and you get your period.
Levels of prolactin rise during pregnancy and the pituitary gland releases the hormone after childbirth to trigger lactation, which enables you to breastfeed. The hormone is also involved in ovulation and your menstrual cycle. If you experience severe PMS (especially uncomfortable breast tenderness), you may have a heightened sensitivity to prolactin or produce too much. Ask your doctor about taking chasteberry supplements, which may suppress the release of prolactin.
Dubbed the exercise hormone, it’s released when you get your sweat on and converts calorie-storing white fat cells into calorie-torching brown fat cells. New research suggests higher irisin levels may also be associated with a reduced risk of age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Strengthening larger muscle groups such as your glutes, quads, core, and back may increase irisin because they contain more muscle cells, which release the hormone when activated.
The male sex hormone—yep, you’ve got it too—plays a role in your sex drive, bone density, and muscle strength. When levels are too high, though, it can lead to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which prevents ovulation and results in an increased risk of insulin resistance, heart disease, excess hair growth, acne, and more. Maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can keep testosterone within a healthy range.
The gut hormone is produced in the small intestine and released into your bloodstream after you eat to decrease appetite and make you feel full. University of Missouri researchers found that downing a high-protein breakfast, such as eggs and sausage, results in greater PYY secretion than a high-carb meal like cereal or pancakes or no breakfast at all.
Another appetite-regulating hormone produced in the gut after you chow down. Foods rich in fat and protein are associated with increased GLP-1 secretion, which makes you feel more satisfied. Chewing nuts thoroughly—about 40 times before swallowing—results in greater release of the hormone over the next 90 minutes, which in turn helps keep your appetite in check.
Your thyroid releases two primary players, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which control your metabolism. Not only does your metabolism dictate your weight, it also determines your energy levels, internal temperature, skin, hair, nail growth, and more. To help keep levels healthy, rid your home of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A (BPA), found in certain plastic water bottles, the linings of canned foods, and receipts, which a University of Michigan study shows can hijack your thyroid hormone levels.
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After you eat, cells in your pancreas release insulin that shuttles glucose from your bloodstream into your body’s tissues to use for energy later. Adding whey protein to your diet may boost your insulin response—in a study, people who downed a whey protein drink before breakfast increased their insulin levels and decreased glucose levels by 28 percent up to three hours after their meal, Tel Aviv University researchers found.
Also produced by cells in your pancreas, glucagon’s effects are directly opposite to insulin’s. When your blood sugar levels dip, glucagon breaks down stored glucose so your body can use it for energy. Insulin and glucagon work together to keep your blood sugar levels stable. You can help too, by eating a high-protein, low-carb diet, which is associated with healthy blood sugar levels and optimal glucagon release.
Most commonly known for its mood-boosting effects—low levels may lead to depression—serotonin is also associated with learning and memory, regulating sleep, and digestion (about 95 percent of serotonin is made in your gut, not in your brain!) Great news: Eating chocolate may actually make you feel happier. Dark chocolate is a rich source of L-tryptophan, which your body converts to serotonin.
The hunger hormone is released in your stomach and signals to your brain that it’s time to feast. Controlling ghrelin levels may be key to preventing weight gain. Get plenty of shut-eye each night: People who sleep for just five hours have 15 percent higher ghrelin levels than those who snooze for eight hours, Stanford University research shows.
Ghrelin’s counterpart, leptin is produced in your fat cells and communicates to your brain that you’ve been fed so you stop eating (thus its nickname the “satiety hormone”). It also helps your brain regulate how much energy your body burns throughout the day. Keep your sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons per day—a University of Florida study found excess sugar leads to leptin resistance in which your brain no longer responds to leptin, which can lead to overeating and weight gain.
The fat-fighting hormone boosts your muscles’ ability to use carbohydrates for energy, increases your metabolism, and speeds the rate at which your body breaks down fat. Your fat cells release the hormone, but, interestingly, leaner people have higher adiponectin levels than those who are overweight. Eating plenty of monounsaturated fats from avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds increases levels of adiponectin and decreases belly fat.
Known as the sleep hormone, your brain’s tiny pineal gland produces the hormone at night to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Newer research shows melatonin may also act as a powerful antioxidant in your body, helping prevent cellular damage from disease-causing free radicals. The hormone needs darkness to work, so any exposure to light at night curtails its production. Sleep in a pitch-black boudoir and avoid using electronic devices like your smartphone or tablet one to two hours before bed.
It’s the reason hugs (and cuddling and sex) feel so darn good—levels go up when we touch others. The bonding hormone, as it’s called, makes us feel closer and more connected to others, which brightens our outlook. Other ways you can increase levels: Watch a movie that touches you emotionally, dance with your partner, or pet your cat or dog.
While men rely on testosterone for muscle development, growth hormone, produced in your pituitary gland, is crucial for increasing muscle and bone strength in women. It also protects your tissues against breakdown, which guards against injuries and keeps your metabolism humming. Research in women shows that lifting heavier weights and doing fewer reps (up to eight per exercise) boosts levels of growth hormone more than using lighter weights with higher reps.
Your stress hormone takes a lot of flack for making you feel, well, stressed, but it’s actually essential to your survival—cortisol increases your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension in the face of danger and pulls the breaks on processes you don’t need in the moment like digestion and reproduction. However, health problems occur when cortisol levels maintain chronically high long after the threat has passed. Spend more time outdoors, especially when exercising: Women who live near green spaces or workout outside have lower blood levels of cortisol than those who spend more time cooped up inside.
When there’s a threat to your safety, your adrenal gland churns out this fight or flight hormone, which allows you to battle the danger head-on or escape to safety. Chronic stress, however, can lead to persistently high levels of adrenaline, which puts you at risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, and more. Keeping plenty of laughter in your life can keep levels in check and even anticipating laughter decreases adrenaline by up to 70 percent, Loma Linda University researchers found.
The feel-good hormone does more than brighten your mood, it tells your brain to repeat a pleasurable activities (like having sex and eating tasty food) over and over again. Use it to your advantage: When you need to feel better, listen to your favorite tune—McGill University research shows hearing a song you love results in a dopamine rush. At the same time, keep foods you crave (like cookies, ice cream, and chips) out of your house since research shows the dopamine release you experience when you consume them can lead to overeating.
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