Those Raging Hormones: Yoga and the Endocrine System

Love is indeed, at root, the product of the firings of neurons and the release of hormones.

— Julian Baginni

We’ve all heard the expression that someone has ‘raging hormones’. And we’ve all had the experience of feeling a bit out of character, imbalanced in someway, going a little crazy. (Especially during puberty when those new hormones are indeed running rampant.) Since a goal of yoga is to bring about balance, can yoga help to balance our hormones as well? You bet. A healthy endocrine system means more effective communication, and overall functioning, of our bodies.

The endocrine system is similar to the nervous system in the sense that both deal with communicating information throughout the body. Information travels exceptionally fast in the nervous system and responses are almost immediate, but their effects are short lived. Communication within the endocrine system is much slower, but the effects of responses last much longer. If the nervous system is like email, then the endocrine system is like snail mail. A letter may take much longer to arrive but you can carry it in your pocket and have its message available for days, weeks, or months.

The main components of the endocrine system are glands and hormones. Practicing yoga causes compression and decompression of the glands, helping to regulate the secretion of hormones. Let’s take a look at the major glands in the body and their functions.

The major glands of the endocrine system.
The major glands of the endocrine system.

Pituitary Gland: The pituitary gland is the master gland, located at the base of the brain next to the hypothalamus. Let’s think of it as the President. Based on the information it receives from the hypothalamus, the pituitary releases hormones to other glands in the body. These hormones tell the other individual glands what hormones they need to release.

  • A variety of poses stimulate the pituitary gland (such as triangle, upavistha konasana, chaturanga dandasana). Many people believe restorative poses help the pituitary (such as savasana and child’s pose).

  • Pituitary tumors (both secretionary and non-secretionary) are the most common disorder. Some tumors cause over-secretion of specific hormones.

Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is the link between the nervous system and the endocrine system. Let’s think of it as the Adviser. Located by the brain stem, it receives information from afferent neurons as information travels up the spinal chord and into the brain. With this information from the nervous system, the hypothalamus ‘nudges’ the pituitary gland into taking appropriate action.

A basic example of the hypothalamus and pituitary in action occurs during breast feeding. When a breast feeding mother hears her baby crying, the sensory neurons pick up this auditory information and it passes through the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus alerts the pituitary gland that action is needed and the pituitary gland releases hormones to the ovaries that will in turn cause the mammary glands to lactate.

The hypothalamus is responsible for many processes of the autonomic nervous system. These include control of hunger and thirst, body temperature, and sleep (in conjunction with the pineal gland) among others. It also releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin aids in sperm production and movement in men and uterine contraction during childbirth in women.

  • Studies are currently observing possible effects of yoga on the hypothalamus (such as the possibility of regulating HPA axis functionality).

  • Appetite and sleep disorders are sometimes linked to the hypothalamus. Most hypothalamic disorders result from physical trauma to the head.

Thyroid: The thyroid is located in the region of the throat and deals with many of our basic survival functions. Let’s think of it as the Energy Consultant. Its main function is to regulate our metabolism: the breaking down of food into energy as well as storing it for later use.. The thyroid also helps regulate appetite, muscle function, heart rate, and blood pressure. The thyroid produces thyroid hormone, which use iodine to manage metabolism. Issues with the thyroid can lead to weight issues as metabolic rates can be extremely high or low and we can have overly voracious appetites or unhealthily low appetites.

  • Poses that stimulate the throat center (shoulderstand, plow, fish, cow) help the thyroid as well as focusing on the visshudi chakra.

  • Common disorders include thyroid cancer, thyroiditis, and goiters.

  • Hyperthyroidism: Too much thyroid hormone leads to excessive eating, hyperactivity, and increased sensitivity to heat.

  • Hypothyroidism: Too little thyroid hormone leads to low appetite, low energy levels, and increased sensitivity to cold.

Parathyroid: The parathyroid is also located in the throat region. We can think of the parathyroid as the Farmer. It determines how much calcium to distribute for muscles and bones to grow, like a farmer determining how much water to give his plants. Calcium levels are regulated through parathyroid hormone, known as PTH. Calcium is the most prevalent mineral in the human body and is extremely important. Calcium is needed for muscle movement and maintaining bone density. It also plays a role in blood clotting and the movement of blood through the blood vessels.

  • Poses that stimulate the throat center (shoulderstand, plow, fish, cow) help the thyroid as well as focusing on the visshudi chakra.

  • The most common disorder is hyperparathyroidism, in which too much PTH is produced. This can lead to osteoporosis as bones constantly release calcium into the bloodstream. Too little calcium in the bones decreases bone density.

Adrenal Glands: The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. We can think of the adrenals as the Watchmen because they respond to stressful situations. They also help the kidneys to maintain appropriate levels of salt in the body through the hormone aldosterone.

The adrenals produce the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol responds to stress and regulates metabolism, blood pressure, and the beating of our hearts. This is why when we are scared our heart begins to race. In times of stress the adrenals release epinephrine (adrenaline), which stimulates our bodies’ fight or flight response. Other hormones suppress inflammatory responses, which is why epinephrine is injected into the body to combat allergic reactions.

  • Restorative poses (such as savasana and legs up the wall) help reduce stress and give the adrenals a break.

  • Adrenal fatigue can lead to high stress levels, trouble sleeping and lack of energy. Diseases are uncommon but include Addison’s disease, adrenal cancer, and Cushing’s disease.

Pancreas: The pancreas is the largest gland in the body, located deep in the abdomen. We can think of it as the Baker because it controls how much sugar is in the body. The pancreas regulates the levels of glucose in the body through the production of two hormones: insulin and glucagon. Insulin tells cells to absorb glucose. Glucagon breaks down stored fats to release more glucose into the body. When doing physical activity that requires a large amount of energy (such as a practicing handstands), glucagon tells the body to begin catabolism. Stored energy in the form of fat is converted into glucose, an energy form the body can use right away.

Other hormones secreted by the pancreas affect the production of stomach acid and the secretion and absorption of water and salts within the intestines.

  • Poses that place pressure on the abdomen work well. Forward folds (like paschimottonasana), spinal twists (such as matsyendrasana) and thunderbolt pose (vajrasana) are especially beneficial for those with diabetes.

  • Diabetes is the most common pancreatic disease. Type 1 diabetes means that the body does not produce any insulin so the body cannot properly process glucose. Type 2 diabetes means that the body produces either an insufficient amount of insulin or the body cannot use insulin correctly.

  • Hypoglycemia: Overproduction of insulin leads to low blood sugar levels.

  • Hyperglycemia: Overproduction of glucagon leads to high blood sugar levels.

Thymus: The thymus works with the immune system and is located between the throat and the sternum. Let’s think of it as the Drill Sergeant. The thymus trains and develops T-cells which are instrumental in attacking invasive viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Once we hit puberty, the thymus begins to shrink because most T-cells are produced during childhood.

  • Heart openers (such as camel and bridge) and throat openers (such as fish and plow) stimulate the thymus. Focusing on the anahata chakra (the heart center) also helps.

  • Common thymus disorders include thymus cancer, thymoma, and DiGeorge’s syndrome.

Pineal Gland: The pineal gland is located deep within the center of the brain and is associated with the third eye. It is the least understood of the glands. We can think of the pineal gland as the Sandman because it controls our circadian rhythm, the cycles of sleeping and waking. The pineal gland produces melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles. The secretion of melatonin is dictated by light. Darkness lowers melatonin levels, preparing the body for sleep. Light increases melatonin levels, preparing the body for activity. Many yogis believe that the pineal gland is instrumental in things such as visualization and astral traveling. Most people’s pineal glands show up as calcified under brain scans. Fluoride deposits attach onto the pineal gland, causing this calcification. (There are many sites devoted to pineal decalficaction, like this one.)

  • The pineal gland is innervated by inversions (such as headstand, prasarita padottonasana, and handstand). Stimulating the pineal gland can lead to better sleep.

  • Preliminary studies indicate a possible link to Alzheimer’s disease.i

Testes: The testes are only found within males and are located in the scrotum. They produce the hormone testosterone which deals with male development during adolescence and reproduction (such as the penis growing larger and the development of pubic hair). Testosterone is referred to as the primary androgen, a substance that promotes masculine development. Testosterone helps to produce sperm and maintain libido, bone density, and muscle strength.

  • Asanas that involve placing one leg over the other (eagle, gomuhkasana) stimulate the testes. So do poses that focus on the swadisthana chakra (locust, cobra).

  • Hypogonadism: Low levels of testosterone can lead to loss of hair, sex drive, sperm count, and muscle mass.

Ovaries: The ovaries are only found within females and are located on both sides of the uterus. They produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone which regulate the health of the female reproductive system and menstruation. Estrogen affects the development of breasts and reproductive organs during puberty, and fat distribution. Progesterone prepares the breasts for lactation, prevents uterine contractions during pregnancy to keep the embryo undisturbed, and thickens the uterine lining to prepare for pregnancy.

  • Asanas that involve placing one leg over the other (eagle, gomuhkasana) stimulate the ovaries. So do poses that focus on the swadisthana chakra (locust, cobra).

  • Common disorders include osteoporosis, ovarian cancer, and ovarian cysts.

Closing Thoughts

Our endocrine systems play an expansive role in our development and daily functioning. We often overlook the endocrine system when thinking about yoga, instead focusing on the more tangible muscles. But our practice goes deep past the muscles, to the glands that are a major source of keeping our bodies in balance. Yoga can help bring us back to a state of balance, making those hormones ‘rage’ a little bit less. Our mats are a place where we can set aside any form of rage that we feel in our daily lives and find calmer waters. Whenever we feel out of character, we can always turn to our mats to take our awareness to our inner true selves, filled with our true character.

Sources:

http://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology

ihttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2251911

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