Everything You Need To Know About Hormones

"Hormones control virtually everything."

Photo by Juliana Stein

“I’m hormonal!” 

The two words you’ve probably said to friends, family members, and partners time and time again when you’re tired, angry, upset, run down, exhausted, or all of the above. It’s a valid declaration, one that seems to speak a thousand words while in fact saying very little. But what does feeling ‘hormonal’ actually mean, and where do we begin when we want to learn more about it? 

A good place to start would be Dr Mary Ryan’s book, It’s Probably Your Hormones. The consultant endocrinologist and women’s health expert has been fascinated by hormones since the beginning of her career; how little we know about them and how crucial a part they play in so many facets of our lives. For instance, did you know that a tiny gland located at the base of the nose (the pituitary gland) can essentially control the whole body through the hormones it produces? 

I didn’t. So, eager to find out more, I spoke to Dr Mary about hormones, all the things they can affect (spoilers: a lot), and why we know so little about them. “It’s important that we understand that hormones control virtually everything,” says Mary. “Your emotions, whether you sleep well, whether you feel happy or sad, your appetite, your sex drive – the list goes on. We also need to understand that we can have a lot of control over this.

“We often hear the phrase ‘I’m hormonal’, and when we say this it means that the hormonal control centre needs to be recharged, like your computer or your iPhone. In today’s busy world people just aren’t doing that. They don’t realise that they need to, but that’s what nourishes the body.” 

Keeping the balance

Recharging your hormonal system could be something as simple as remembering to eat breakfast yourself as well as feeding the kids, or taking some gentle exercise on the days you’re feeling particularly run down. The hormonal system operates on a supply and demand basis, meaning that (like us) it’s susceptible to stress and exhaustion. Each cycle works in perfect tandem with the next… until it doesn’t. 

When we push ourselves too far or get sick, those hormones can get jolted out of place. This can have a knock on effect on every other system in the body. A hormonal imbalance could feel like insomnia, a lack of sex drive, a sudden bout of anger, or even struggling with your memory. It could manifest itself in a whole host of symptoms including irregular periods, pain during sex, anxiety, hair loss, depression, fertility issues, and so, so many more. 

So, what does one do if they’re suffering? If they’re exhausted, gaining weight, losing weight, lacking in sex drive, lost their appetite, or any of the other plethora of issues that could be directly pertaining to a hormonal change? The first step, Mary says, is to reach out to their GP and ask for a blood test and to have their thyroid checked. If they’re still not getting the answers they need, the second step is to ensure they’re being referred to the right person – an endocrinologist. Once associated primarily with diabetes and thyroid issues, more research has meant that endocrinology’s focus is starting to widen, focusing on more common issues pertaining to so many people. 

Photo by Guilherme Almeida

A female issue?

Contrary to what you might have presumed, hormones do in fact influence both men and women. They do, however, tend to affect women more because of the menstrual cycle (thanks, nature). This is part of the reason why there has been so little research into hormones until now – this, and the simple fact that so many patients did not feel comfortable talking about their pain and discomfort. 

Mary says she has noticed a massive shift in women of all ages speaking out about their health in recent years, “and it’s wonderful. Especially when it comes to the menopause. Women are asking questions and they’re talking about symptoms they felt only they were experiencing. Women’s health has been so far behind so we really needed this. Not just for hormones, but for endometriosis, for heavy periods, for everything. 

“For so long, women were not looked after, and they were not listened to. Too much suffering has been done. We want to see our mothers living healthily into their late 80s and 90s. There has been a lot of improvement but we still have a long way to go.”

This ‘long way to go’ includes adequate care for endometriosis patients, a cervical screening programme that women trust, shorter waiting list times, appropriate responses to painful periods, access to HRT (hormone replacement therapy)… the list could go on, and does. Ireland’s track record when it comes to women’s health is inconsistent at best, and oftentimes it’s patients who take their health into their own hands to get the answers they need. At least now, they’re being listened to more. 

Mary says that empowerment is key – that women feel empowered to speak out and ask questions about their health, but also that attitudes continue to change among those in the medical community to allow women to feel comfortable asking those questions. 

“I’m a big believer in changing the narrative,” she says. “We have female mentors in medicine who are at the top of their careers now and they’re speaking out, but we need more of them. Education is so important, there’s still so much gender inequality in Ireland. We have so much more to do.” 

It’s Probably Your Hormones is out now. 


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