Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hormones - what are they really? upper level managers for the body's state.
What do you think of when someone says Hormones? Maybe muscle oriented folks think about testosterone. Women tending towards a certain age think about estrogen. Athletes may think about adrenelein. Diet conscious may think about Insulin. Someone totally stressed may not know what to think about but that's epinepherine and cortisol. In the sesame street way of what goes together, all of these are hormones. But what does that mean?

If we pull up from the particular view of what an individual hormone does, it seems the big picture on hormones is that they are messengers or signals for the body - or some part of the body - that something has happened to it or part of it that has induced a state change. They are, in effect, state change managers.

Endocrine system: the generators of hormones

Food enters the gut, hormones are released to tell the gut to get certain enzymes going to start breaking up the food, tearing it apart to do something with it - put it away, actually. Everything in its place and a place for everything. Different hormones take care of different parts of the change process.  Carbs are broken down and are ready to enter the blood stream, insulin shows up to say "right this way" to ensure the glucose is used. Heck, even being hungry is perceived as a state change (check out ghrelin) where hormones are released to get an action happening (eg, feed me. feed me now).

Women are intimately familiar with hormonal changes that occur on a monthly basis to handle all the state changes that menses sets off. But that's what's happening: a change in our homeoSTASIS triggers these little do gooders - our hormones - to make sure that our bodies have an optimal response to that change for our survival.

Injury. Getting the blood to act in particular ways to clot - not something it does when its just pumping through our veins - is the response of our bodies to a pretty specific state change. And so what's the body doing? Providing an optimal response to survive by taking energy to get into the inflammation and healing process (whether we register the injury as pain or not depends on the richer context of what's going on with our body and mind at the time. We also have hormones to self-medicate, making opiates for us).

Need to sleep? Great big survival state change? Melatonin regulates that, too.

And last example,  if we get startled or stressed, that is likewise a signal to the nervous system for a state change, in this case, prepare to flee. And its one most of us get triggered to some degree daily.

From a bang going off behind us, to having to give a public speech, to anticipating a bill we can't pay, our very physical being interprets these experiences as threat (or startle in some literature). At this threat signal, a slurry of different hormones are released to optimize our system to survive and get us away from tiger tiger burning bright.

One set of hormones (epinephrine or adrenaline) accelerates heart rate and inspiration to get the peripheral system (our limbs) ready to move fast. Other catecholamines are released to mobilize fat from storage into free fatty acid to be right ready to be used as fuel for the long run away from the predator. Cortisol kicks in to shut down digestion: we really don't want to burn precious ATP for digestion when we'll need it for motoring. If we survive we can digest later.  Testosterone (tarzan's chest beating, for instance) actually gets turned on in these situations to help reduce the fear response and "man up" as it were so we don't go totally fetal. Intriguingly, estrogen also seems to have similar calming effects to startle (at least in rats). Gender - in rats - is a player, too, it seems in whether testosterone or estrogen reduces either accoustic verses light based startle too. Isn't that wild? Indeed there's a great quote in that source that says "testosterone skulpts the male brain [of the rat]"

Anyway, suffice it to say - there's a lot of hormones released in stress to deal with a lot of the systems in

Similar Profiles: stress and exercise
What is quite cool is that exercise has just about the same profile as stress in terms of hormonal responses. Catecholamines, which are great for fat mobilization, are triggered as soon as we get moving at a clip. The greater the intensity, the greater the release. So HIIT does get more fatty acids mobilized that slower steady state, as we discussed looking at Trapp's work over in this piece on different HIIT modes.

SO it seems even if we're not in startle or threat, the fact that we're moving requires similar hormonal responses: energy to the limbs rather than digestion, fat mobilization to keep going. Even the speed of hypertrophy occurring is as we know, an adaptation to demand. It seems in some cases where the environment is also perceived by the nervous system to be a potential threat, the adaptation (hypertrophy and strength) is accelerated. We saw awhile ago in Get Huge or Die that resistance workouts in a reduced oxygen chamber also caused faster hypertrophy - and that the hormanal cascade in that case seemed greater than the normal air environment: survive and get bigger to be better adapted to survive that again. Maybe.

Connecting Stress and Exercise: move it move it
Fact is, we can see two things from this understanding of hormones as state change managers (upper level management to be sure).

First, exercise is a state change (from stasis to motion) that sends hormones to optimize our body for that movement. When we move with those hormones in an exercise state, we usually feel pretty good. The hormones do their job: support movement. We derive benefits.

Second, stress has pretty much the same hormonal profile as exercise type movement - getting the heart rate up being the main observable factor. So, if we're having hormones released to say "i've just had a signal for you to get going: here come the chemicals to turn your body into a mean moving machine" and then we DON'T move, what happens?

Let's see, we feel like crap, we don't sleep, we gain weight, our skin can get funny, we are more susceptible to disease. Why?

In part because our body will keep trying to pull us out of the fire the only way it knows how. It seems to assume if we don't respond we must be deaf and so it amps up the signal.

Use it or ... Break It
As proposed, our hormones are signals responding to state change requests (startle or fear or stress are all requests to our nervous system to get us somewhere safe), if we do not respond to the message to change, it seems that the message gets louder: more hormones will get poured on the fire.
That is, our bodies are trying to tell us to use what thoes hormones have evolved to do: optimize getting away, that's movement, and if we don't listen to them, they get louder and louder until we finally break.

Like pain is a signal to change that gets louder until either we finally do something about it, or we become incapacitated, likewise these other hormones. Stress goes up. Digestion goes down. Sleep degrades.

We see this kind of signaling to support change not just in stress but in digestion: the in rush of fast digesting starchy carbs to our system is seen as a state change. That triggers insulin to get the sugar into the blood cells for conversion to energy. When we overeat regularly - put in more fuel than is required for a state change (we don't need the energy to do something), we can develop insulin resistance - the cells that usually respond to insulin knocking at the door to pop in some fuel for energy say bugger off. Or go deaf. So what does the body do? "you're not listening to me: let me amp up the signal" - more insulin to say "knock knock I AM HERE, CELL, WITH A DELIVERY" - and what can't be used by those cells gets moved to fat.

Eventually there's a viscous cycle in highly restistant (and often overweight or obese) folks, where even when they're eating well, the body is so resistant to insulin's effects, they are effectively starving while gaining more fat.

 AT this point as well someone may be on insulin injections because the pancrease cannot produce enough volume on its own for these now-deaf cells literally to GET the message. And as you can image, large folks who aren't getting energy from their food are going to feel too pooped to get mobile. When we break, we really break.

Intriguingly (at least i think so) - movement can once again help accelerate the repair process because we are so plastic and adaptable. If we move we can redevelop insulin sensitivity. Strength training is fabulous for this. Dave Barr has a nice piece explaining this process. In other words get insulin levels to where they need to be to process the food into energy for the cells, get nutrition under control, and then get moving to develop greater sensitivity again - and we do see many people backing way off in type 2 diabetes from their shots: their messengers have been heard, the system realigns. Homeostatis and safety once again.

Move it Move it, Walk it Off.
So what do we see?
With both stress and eating, it seems the simple way to deal with the hormonal pattern we recognise as stress is to move: we thereby use the hormonal signals for what they were designed to support: physical action. Kill it or run away. Mission accomplished, back to calmer state. And from that calmer, stabler place, we can can look for strategies to help us deal effectively with whatever is freaking us out.

Before we get to calmer state is the run away or kill it process to blow off the physiological effects of the hormal cascade. Literally. Indeed, breathing, as we've talked about before, is a huge part of movement to rebalance our carbon dioxide and oxygen in our bodies, which helps send signals that ah ha yes we're dealing with the threatening situation; it's over; our system is going back to homeostasis thank you very much.

Something we rarely do when we're feeling our hormonal cascade for fight of flight kick in at a work place is to go for a walk. With my students, i'll do a coach and stroll from time to time. Walking has many great benefits from mirroring what the other person is doing to this physical use of these signals to DO something physical. We both calm down and engage better. One of my colleagues is also a dancer. He paces frequently when we're working together. That's a good thing, again for many reasons, but processing hormones that are signalling MOVE is a good thing.

No wonder archimedes flew out of his tub and ran when he discovered density - the excitement set his adrenaline going and he blew it off by running. Hopefully the later realization of his nekked butt in public didn't cause a stress cascade to ratchet up.

Vent the Hormonal Soup Pot: Feel Good with the Body where it Wants to Be - in Balance
We hear all the time that people feel so much better when they start an exercise program. We usually focus on the feeling better as down to body comp change, so improved self image, aerobic health (heart and lungs), energy up'd.

All great and true, but we kinda tend to miss, don't we, the fact that perhaps we're feeling less stressed and sleeping better because we are also venting the steam from the soup pot of hormonal build up we get when (a) we live in a stressful environment and (b) it's generally pretty sedentary.  

We are physical beings rather than brains with annoying bodies. We're wired to move in response to an awful lot of our hormonal signals.

In this likely grossly oversimplified view of hormones, we could say there's a hormone to support any state change to the body. Whether the state change is from a threat, ingestion of food (or toxin), an injury, sex, anything that causes the body's state to change, there's a hormone that deals with optimizing whatever the body needs to do to stay safe - protecting itself for survival. That goes for fuel use, run away and hide, procreate, whatever is triggered.

We've seen that not listening to these hormonal messengers can cause the signals to keep coming, get louder. Their getting louder if not attended to often causes that part of the system to break, which will have incapacitating effects for us.

We've also seen that the pattern of many of these cascades seems to be addressed by movement: from large movements like going for a walk and getting the heart rate up (which induces harder breathing automatically) or smaller movements like self-induced deeper breathing.

We have not discussed that some of the signalling can be trained based on behaviour - like the cues to get hungry - but we have seen that we can often restore function to an overtaxed signalling system - like insulin resistance - by getting moving. Walking is great, breathing is great. Mobility drills, also effective. As we have seen before in Move or Die all this movement also sends lots of proprioceptive information to say "we're fine; we're in use; we're moving." All good.

So micro summary? 
  • hormones are state change managers
  • a lot of their messages are about movement
  • when we don't respond to those messages by moving they amp up the signal
  • if they keep amping up the signal, we break
  • getting back to movement can help restore even pretty broken systems
  • best: find a way to move first to deal with the signals 
  • so that the space can be found to get other strategies not to be quite so triggered by those stimuli, or to reduce the requirements for those off-setting stimuli.
  • be kind to yourself if in that state: it's not optimal for lifting heavy or learning new skills - walk, mobility work - all can help restore function

By the way, if you're a trainer, and are interested in how to integrate understanding this hormonal cascade with training/coaching your clients, the topic (among a lot of others - see overview here) is covered in the z-health r-phase certification. If you go for the cert, please let 'em know mc recommended you: we don't get cash for referrals - we get credit towards our continuing zed-ed. Thank you. -mc

HERMANS, E., PUTMAN, P., BAAS, J., KOPPESCHAAR, H., & VANHONK, J. (2006). A Single Administration of Testosterone Reduces Fear-Potentiated Startle in Humans Biological Psychiatry, 59 (9), 872-874 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.11.015

Van den Buuse, M. (2001). Estrogen increases prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle in rats European Journal of Pharmacology, 425 (1), 33-41 DOI: 10.1016/S0014-2999(01)01139-6

Toufexis, D. (2005). Sex Differences in Hormonal Modulation of Anxiety Measured with Light-Enhanced Startle: Possible Role for Arginine Vasopressin in the Male Journal of Neuroscience, 25 (39), 9010-9016 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0127-05.2005

Zouhal, H., Jacob, C., Delamarche, P., & Gratas-Delamarche, A. (2008). Catecholamines and the Effects of Exercise, Training and Gender Sports Medicine, 38 (5), 401-423 DOI: 10.2165/00007256-200838050-00004


Stephan Fabregas said...

Very cool perspective and a great way to explain homeostasis in terms of hormones.
I just wanted to point out another state change that often gets ignored, and requires quite a different reaction: sleep. If cortisol is what tells us to move, melatonin is what tells us to stop. We are active animals, but also require sleep. Ignoring either puts stress on the system and can eventually cause something to break. It's a dynamic equilibrium... gotta love homeostasis.

dr. m.c. said...

You are so right on the sleep side (and see? every state change has a hormone)
that's great. i must plug this in and that relates to jet lag being such a bummer too.

Totally right on Steve. Thank you.

yes - i'm also curious as to the differences between homeostasis and entropy. A paper thin divide???

Thank you. must think on this: sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.

A colleague, stephen fabregas at makes the interesting point that we spend a third of our day unconscious, yet we're wired for survival - so despite that incredible seeming vulnerability that must be pretty durn critical.

Thanks again


dr. m.c. said...

ok now i've realized i'm talking to colleague steve f.
perhaps i'm sleep deprived? duh.
and thanks steve. i'm assuaging my stupid state by at least seeing i still attribute even when stupidly lagged.


Paramjit said...

That is a great article. it really gives a detailed overview of hormones. I liked the way you explained "use it or lose it". I never realized it that way. Its easier to explain to the layman. Thanks for the exhaustive article


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