What exactly are hormones? They’re biochemical messengers produced by your endocrine system in response to signals from your pituitary, the “master gland.”
Released into your bloodstream, hormones attach to receptor sites on cells throughout your body—triggering the production of proteins that regulate growth and development, respiration and other basic functions, metabolism, energy, and much, much more.
As you age, the production of several hormones declines in a predictable fashion. Others hold steady but their receptors become less sensitive to the cues that generate hormonal activity. Because age-related decline, degeneration, and disease accompany many of these changes, some scientists maintain that aging is controlled at least in part by hormones.
More than 50 hormones have been identified in the human body, but we will limit our discussion to those that you can do something about, starting with the most obvious— sex hormones.
Estrogen, Progesterone & Aging
Menopause is hard to miss. As progesterone and estrogen output decreases with age, 80% of American women experience moderate to severe mood swings, insomnia, hot flashes, and/or night sweats. Other consequences of declines in progesterone and estrogen include skin aging, vaginal dryness, bone loss, and urinary problems.
Unfortunately, menopause is no flash in the pan. Women usually begin noticing symptoms in their mid-40s, and they persist for four or five years after the last period, which is generally around age 50. That’s a long time to endure poor sleep, moodiness, and an off-kilter internal thermostat.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) significantly enhances quality of life during this time. If you go this route, I strongly suggest you talk to your doctor about bioidentical estrogen and progesterone. Hormones that are familiar to the body are safer and better tolerated than synthetic drugs. In addition to reducing menopausal symptoms, HRT also helps prevent fractures, and some studies suggest it protects against heart disease and dementia. Very small doses of testosterone—the hormone of desire in both sexes—may be added as well, especially if low libido is an issue.
Testosterone in Aging Men
Sorry, men, but we’re not exempt from a “change of life.” It’s called andropause, and it’s caused by testosterone loss with age.
Many of the unpleasant aspects of aging—including an increase in body fat, depression, fatigue, and insomnia, and a reduction in muscle mass, libido, erectile function, and self-confidence—are related to drops in testosterone. I can tell you from my own experience that testosterone replacement, which I have personally been using off and on for several years, makes a noticeable difference in these areas.
Worries about prostate cancer have given testosterone replacement a bad rap. Yes, this hormone can fuel existing tumors, but supplemental testosterone does not cause prostate cancer. Used appropriately, it is safe and well tolerated, and many men report improvements in energy, mood, weight, strength, sexual function, and sense of well-being.
Low Thyroid Function Is Common
Problems with the thyroid gland, which secretes hormones that control your metabolic rate and other basic functions, increase with age. In some cases, the thyroid produces excessive amounts of hormones (hyperthyroidism).
More often than not, however, the thyroid doesn’t produce enough. Unexplained fatigue, depression, forgetfulness, weight gain, elevated cholesterol, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, and cold hands and feet—all are signs and symptoms of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism).
Approximately 20% women over age 65, and a lower but significant percentage of older men, have hypothyroidism. Because these same symptoms could be chalked up to aging, hypothyroidism often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Ask your doctor about comprehensive thyroid testing. A simple TSH test is not enough. Thyroid replacement—preferably with natural thyroid—can make a world of difference.
Declining Melatonin Levels Affect Sleep
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that regulates sleep and supports circadian rhythms—the natural 24-hour cycles that affect virtually all physiological functions. Your body produces less melatonin as you age, and this is one reason why older people often have sleep problems. Boosting levels with supplemental melatonin helps you get to sleep faster and enjoy more restful sleep.
A proven treatment for disrupted sleep cycles and other circadian rhythm disorders, melatonin is also being studied as a therapy for improving mood, treating cancer, and enhancing brain health. Plus, some researchers believe it has anti-aging effects. Melatonin is one of the few hormones available without a prescription. For better sleep, I recommend 3 mg 30 minutes before bedtime.
Insulin Sensitivity & Aging
Insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas, triggers the uptake of glucose and lowers blood sugar. Although insulin levels don’t normally decline with advancing age, your cells may become less sensitive to its signals over time. This condition, called insulin resistance, increases your risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and other problems.
Statistics suggest that insulin resistance and aging go hand in hand. The CDC’s latest figures reveal that nearly 27% of people age 65 and older have diabetes! Although type 2 diabetes is usually treated with oral drugs or injected insulin, you can lower your blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity with a natural approach that includes weight loss, a low-carbohydrate diet, exercise, and targeted supplements.
DHEA, the “Mother Hormone”
Your adrenal glands secrete several hormones, and one of them is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA is sometimes called the “mother hormone” because it can be converted to testosterone or estrogen as needed. Beginning around age 30, DHEA production begins to taper off, eventually dropping to a mere fraction of what it was in your youth. Scores of studies have linked low DHEA with age-related disorders such as diabetes, immune dysfunction, heart disease, and more.
Some clinical trials have shown that supplemental DHEA improved vaginal atrophy, erectile dysfunction, bone density, fatigue, depression, and other conditions. However, because study results have been inconsistent, DHEA hasn’t received the attention I think it deserves. Like melatonin, it is available without a prescription. The usual dose is 25 mg for women and 50 mg for men.
TLC for Your Endocrine System
Hormone replacement is not a cure-all, nor is it for everyone, but it is certainly worth discussing with your doctor. I also recommend giving your endocrine system some TLC with these natural therapies:
- Exercise: Physical activity, especially strengthening exercises, has been shown to increase testosterone levels.
- Sleep: Honoring your body’s natural rhythms by going to bed and waking up at a regular time promotes melatonin production
- Diet: Foods that support specific glands and hormones include iodine-rich fish and seaweed (thyroid); broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables (estrogens), and low-glycemic carbohydrates (insulin).
- Weight loss: Obesity is linked with insulin resistance, low testosterone, and imbalances in estrogen and other hormones.
- Endocrine disruptors: Be aware that certain chemicals in plastics, building materials, herbicides, and other environmental toxins—plus water- and food-borne pesticides, hormones, and heavy metals—interfere with normal hormone function.
- Targeted supplements: Boron, selenium, zinc, vitamins D, C, and B-complex, and other nutrients in multivitamins are required for optimal endocrine function. Supplements for sleep, blood sugar, thyroid, men’s or women’s health, etc., contain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and botanicals that help regulate the hormones we’ve discussed.