Where do hormones come from? Do they just appear out of thin air? Do they just ooze out of reproductive organs magically? No, just like most of our body’s chemical messengers, they are made from other substances in us. Our reproductive and adrenal hormones all begin as cholesterol, yes cholesterol. Despite its horrible reputation (not entirely deserved), cholesterol is necessary for our organs to produce progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, and aldosterone. We’ll address other hormones like thyroid or insulin some other time.
How do we get so many different hormones with such different functions from one building block, cholesterol? Cholesterol is a versatile molecule originating both from our diet and our own body systems. With several rings interlocked and side chains in the molecule, many opportunities for “modifications” exist. Each change lends the new molecular structure different properties. Our bodies process cholesterol down various pathways which lead to the end products we need. The “Hormone Cascade” produces each needed hormone by choosing different pathways and stopping at different points along the pathway.
For example, estradiol, the primary female hormone, travels through progesterone, testosterone, and other intermediate steps to end up being secreted by the ovaries in ladies. In men the process stops at testosterone with minimal going to estradiol (unless unexpected circumstances exist). On the other hand, cortisol requires a detour away from testosterone or its metabolite cousins. The adrenal glands send the building blocks into this critical for life hormone which they excrete into the blood.
What determines which end-product results in the hormone cascade? It all comes down to enzymes and how much of each enzyme is found in a particular tissue or organ. Without an enzyme, cholesterol won’t proceed through an intermediate, pregnenolone, and continue into progesterone or the other hormones. Depending on which enzyme is present, progesterone diverts down into cortisol or proceeds to the reproductive organs. Depending on the presence of aromatase enzyme, testosterone continues into estrogens. Our bodies need rather precise control of these process so that the correct amount and correct ratios of hormones are produced. Enzymes and their metabolic controls serve our bodies with the right doses of all these hormones.
What effects arise out of these right doses of the right hormones? Each hormone, though all arising from cholesterol, exert a variety of effects based on which alterations are made to its basic structure. Some express themselves nearly identically in men and women. Others, due to greatly divergent concentrations in different sexes, express what we perceive as gender traits anatomically. Cortisol and aldosterone function basically the same in men and women. They both affect blood pressure and mineral balance while cortisol influences countless other metabolic processes. Cortisol touches inflammation, the immune system, hunger, growth, and other endocrine glands (thyroid and pancreas).
Progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, and estrogen vary greatly between the sexes. In women, progesterone and estrogen predominate producing both anatomical differences and functional differences. In men, their much higher levels of androgens (testosterone and DHEA) produce different anatomy as well as generally greater muscle mass on average. Still, men benefit from low levels of estrogens for prostate health and women benefit from androgens for muscle strength, tissue repair, and sex drive. Everyone needs some of each, just at different levels.
Now that you understand from where adrenal and reproductive hormones come and how they get to their necessary destinations, you may ask if our destiny is settled. Absolutely not. We influence these hormone levels for better and worse with lifestyle and therapy choices. A world of toxins alters the cascade’s pathways and thus the ultimate amounts produced of each. Life stress alters the pathways directly and through the feedback of higher cortisol. We can overcome such negative influences and optimize levels through lifestyle changes and various nutritional/herbal remedies. We can even supplement low levels with the hormones themselves (preferably natural versions called bioidenticals). Again, we are affected by changing hormone levels but we are not at the mercy of the hormonal cascade. We can use knowledge and wisdom from functional medicine to help you live a healthier more abundant life.