Hormones. They are the behind the scenes crew members making sure the play carries on as planned. They play a vital role in every facet of our lives and affect many parts of our bodies.
One surprising part that they exert influence over is our brain. The influence hormones have on our brains is typically circumscribed to puberty. But, hormones play a role our daily cognitive processes. Here are a few ways that they do.
Your hormones change as you age, and so does your brain
With age comes a decline in cognitive functions. We begin to forget more and remember less. It becomes difficult to recall incidents that happened seconds ago. Numerous studies suggest that a decline in socio-emotional cognition and processing speed is inevitable. However, research suggests that the interactions between hormones like estrogen, cortisol, testosterone, and oxytocin may influence a decline in cognitive functions.
Age-related endocrine changes occur to the diminished secretion from peripheral glands like the anterior insula, which produce a change in inhibitory systems and sleep patterns. According to a study from Castle and colleagues., activity in the anterior insula correlates with the diminished intuitive response to gauge trustworthiness. Thus, leading older people to trust those who may seem untrustworthy.
Another hormone that produces age-related changes is testosterone. A study found that psychological and physiological changes caused by lifestyle changes or loss speed up the decrease of testosterone.
It is important to note that not one hormone is responsible for psychological or physiological ages. Age-related psychological or physiological changes are responses to a widespread change in all hormonal systems.
Hormones affect your memory.
Another part that hormones influence is your memory. Memory, by nature, is complex. There is short-term (or working memory) and long-term memory. Each section carries out intricate maneuvers to store or call forth information necessary to make choices. However, as we age, our memory changes.
Some studies have shown that menopause in both men and women affects memory. On a side note, men also go through a gradual hormonal change, though it is not as drastic as female menopause. I digress.
Although sex hormones play a role in age-related decline of cognition, there are other hormones that play a role. For example, studies have suggested that older women and younger males are susceptible to cortisol’s effect on cognitive function. On the other hand, older males may experience a change in hippocampal volume. Additionally, older women may be more susceptible to stressors than older males because of changing levels of estrogen.
The psychological and neurological changes in both cortisol and estrogen can affect how your brain processes and stores memories. Cortisol plays a role in memory consolidation and retrieval. Though scientists seem to have mixed evidence, there is strong support for the suggestion that cortisol does impair memory retrieval. It also affects the structure of the brain. High levels of cortisol can produce atrophy in the hippocampal region as well as poor working memory.
Signs that you may have too much cortisol in your body are rapid or excessive weight gain, high blood pressure, slowed healing, muscle weakness, and difficulty concentrating. See your doctor if you notice any of these signs or if you are concerned about your cortisol levels.
Hormonal changes affect behavior and vice-versa.
Cortisol, as I am sure you already know, is the stress hormone. It plays a significant role in our behavior and other psychological processes.
Stress plays a role in how your brain changes. The amount of cortisol in your body determines the efficiency of cognitive functions.
Here is how cortisol interacts with your brain. The production of cortisol begins in the amygdala. In a stressful situation, your amygdala sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands, via the automatic nervous system, to produce adrenaline. The secretion of adrenaline activate the sympathetic nervous system. Thus, physiological changes, such as rise in blood pressure and pulse, ensue. Capillaries in your lungs expand to oxygenate the brain–making it more alert. Epinephrine also triggers the release of glucose from storage fat deposits to increase the body’s energy. All these processes ready your body for fight or flight.
After the initial surge of adrenalin, the hypothalamus activates the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal). The HPA continues to signal the sympathetic nervous system. If your brain still perceives danger, it will release CRH and ACTH hormones. These hormones prompt the adrenal glands to release more cortisol into your body. The constant release of cortisol maintains your body on high alert. This process repeats or continues if you experience chronic stress.
Another most commonly talked about hormone is dopamine. Dopamine is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It’s often called the happiness hormone because of its direct link to pleasure and arousal. But, scientists have recently linked dopamine to avoidance. By studying rats, scientists that those with higher levels of dopamine choose to put in the effort to obtain more food than those with lower dopamine levels. This study was revelatory since it explains why we are less willing to do something that we do not like. When we do something that we like, our brain releases dopamine, and hence we are more likely to do that again. Dopamine addiction creates a pattern or habit which may not always be productive.
A good barometer for how much dopamine is how your body is reacting. If you notice that you are sluggish or that your movements are slow, you may need more dopamine in your body. Some good sources of dopamine are fish, chicken, eggs, legumes, and cheese. Consult with your doctor if you have more questions or concerns.
Hormones play a role in or socio-emotional development.
For many years psychotherapists and artists have tried to understand relationships. However, researchers found the neurobiological systems responsible for social behavior.
Oxycotin production occurs in the hypothalamus. From there, it is secreted through the posterior pituitary. In women, oxytocin helps with chidbirth by inducing labor contractions. In men, oxytocin works with testosterone to influence sperm production and movement.
But, it has from its physiological role, oxytocin plays a role in social behavior. Researchers from the 1970s found that oxytocin plays a role in social bonding. They noticed that oxytocin helped influence attachment in female rats and prairie voles. After seeing the effects of oxytocin on social development in mammalian species, researchers began to look at humans. Oxytocin acts as a chemical messenger that enables us to discern facial expressions, increases interpersonal trust, and wills us to take social risks. All of these processes aim to spur the development of social bonds.
To increase oxytocin levels get a hug or massage. These activities will help increase your oxytocin levels and decrease your cortisol.
Hormones are responsible for our initial growth spurt.
Perhaps the most observable way hormones affect you occurs during puberty. These hormones: HGH, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, are responsible for are the physiological changes you undergo during your adolescence.
These same hormones are also responsible for aging, growth, immunity, reproduction, and behavior. These hormones interact with the brain through the blood-brain barrier, which allows steroids and sex hormones to cross from the pituitary gland and affect the central nervous system and downward regions.
Hormones are incredible. They act as the diplomats in our bodies–working together with other chemicals to ensure that messages are received and carried out. Unfortunately, their function and importance are, at times, overlooked. I hope this article expanded your knowledge of hormones.
Let us know in the comments below what you find interesting, insightful, or helpful.
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