Hormones have a massive effect on our bodies. Controlling our development throughout our lives, as well as influencing moods, they're a major factor in who we are. But what are hormones, really?
A hormone is a type of chemical that's produced by your body's glands. There are many different types of hormone, and their purpose includes delivering signals throughout your body to carry out physical functions such as growth, as well as regulating mental functions such as your mood.
Hormones affect people differently at each stage of life. From telling your body when it's time to sleep to being the driving force behind puberty, hormones are a complicated but incredibly clever network – and play major roles at all stages of life.
Hormones play a key part in your child’s development. It's at this stage that some parents might experience toddler tantrums for the first time, (misleadingly known as the 'terrible twos'). But why do toddlers have tantrums, and are their hormones to blame?
Toddler tantrum-related hormones
Official name: Cortisol
Also known as: The stress hormone, the 'fight or flight' hormone
What are temper tantrums? When a child has a temper tantrum, they're usually experiencing a release of the 'fight or flight' hormone that causes a feeling of stress. Toddler tantrums can be caused by a toddler's inability to process how they're feeling, as well as not having learned the language skills to express themselves. This can lead to frustration and stress, which cortisol plays a part in.
During puberty, a teenager's hormones help their bodies make the transition from children to adults, which can also have an effect on a teenager's mood.
Mood swing-related hormones
Official name: Serotonin
Also known as: Teenage mood swings
What are mood swings? Serotonin is often the culprit behind those teenage mood swings. It's prominent during puberty, and is the hormone that's responsible for regulating your general mood.
Next steps: If you're concerned about a teenager currently coping with the effects of mood swings, making small lifestyle changes can often make a big difference. For example, developing a good exercise routine and eating healthily can have a positive effect. It's also important to make sure teenagers get enough sleep. Teenagers need more sleep than the average adult - around nine hours of sleep a night.
In teenage girls, hormones are responsible for triggering developmental changes such as the menstrual cycle; there's a significant link between mood and the hormone oestrogen.
Official name: Oestrogen
Also known as: Female sex hormone
What is oestrogen? Oestrogen is the hormone that regulates a woman's periods, helps her release eggs from her ovaries and to conceive. Oestrogen levels naturally rise and fall throughout a woman's cycle, and it is this rise and fall that affects each female differently. One thing oestrogen can affect is the level or serotonin in the body, which goes some way in explaining the presence of mood swings in teenage girls.
As in teenage girls, teenage boys also experience an increase in hormones that spark puberty, notably testosterone.
Official name: Testosterone
Also known as: Male sex hormone
What is testosterone? Testosterone is one of the main sex hormones. This is the chemical that's responsible for other changes you may experience throughout puberty, such as developing facial hair and the deepening of the voice. Testosterone may also play a part in affecting teenage boys' moods. Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health explains the effect testosterone can have on mood:
"Men with lower levels of testosterone may be at an increased risk of developing depression. On the whole men are very resilient to changes in testosterone levels however, dramatic increases – found when using anabolic steroids for example - can cause symptoms such as, irritability, aggression and paranoia."
Living with the effects that hormonal changes can have on your mood can be tough, which is why it's important to approach it calmly. Developing a good, healthy routine of proper sleep, a good diet and plenty of exercise can be a great method of countering the sometimes negative impact of hormonal changes.
The way adults are affected by hormones will greatly depend on whether you're a man or woman, as life stages such as pregnancy and the menopause can have a higher hormonal impact. Stress is something that can affect any adult, and it is the hormone cortisol that triggers those feelings.
Official name: Cortisol
Also known as: Stress hormone
What is cortisol? Cortisol is a vital hormone in the human body. It helps to keep your immune system working as it should, as well as helping to break down certain food groups such as fats and proteins.
While in toddlers an increase in the level of cortisol may induce a tantrum, Dr Mark explains its importance:
"Cortisol is an important hormone that keeps us safe, allowing us to protect ourselves from threat. If we activate this response regularly when we assume non-threatening situations to be dangerous, we can over produce cortisol. This can make us feel quite anxious, negative, worry more and make it difficult for us to concentrate, learn and relax. Too much cortisol, due to us experiencing stress has also been implicated in a whole range of physical health problems."
Too much cortisol from stress can have a negative impact on your immune system, as well as causing weight gain and sleep loss. This in turn can have a negative impact on your mood.
Dealing with stress can be a challenge for many adults. AXA Health has some great practical advice for dealing with the symptoms of stress, such as ensuring you take your full holiday entitlement at work, and cutting down on caffeine. You can also read more information on what may cause stress, and how to recognise it.
While it's particularly prominent in puberty, testosterone continues to play an important role throughout male adult life. Its presence, or lack of, can have an effect on mood, and once a man reaches his thirties, the level of testosterone naturally begins to decrease by about 1% each year.
In adult life, a low level of testosterone can have an effect on mood. A person who is experiencing this might notice a lower sex drive, erectile dysfunction, a reduction in how competitive or how driven they feel, as well as potentially experiencing some level of depression.
Testosterone can also affect a man's sleep too - this in turn can result in a noticeable reduction in energy levels, as well as the ability to concentrate.
A person with a reduced level of testosterone might also experience some weight gain. This is because the hormone helps you to metabolise fat, and so without it you're more likely to put on weight.
It is possible to treat a low level of testosterone with medication. The NHS explains that this can be in the form of tablets, patches or gels among others.
Oestrogen and Progesterone
The levels of certain hormones continue to change well into adult life and become something to contend with should a pregnancy occur, as well as later in life when going through the menopause. These hormones can have an effect on mood too.
Pregnancy hormones – Oestrogen and Progesterone
During pregnancy, it's the rise of oestrogen and progesterone that can cause the expectant mother to experience mood swings. Progesterone is produced by the ovaries, and as well as oestrogen, is responsible for readying the body for pregnancy. Progesterone is this chemical that signals the expectant female body to produce milk and generally prepare for the baby.
Oestrogen and progesterone
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is common in adult females. This is something that is sparked by the fluctuating levels of oestrogen and progesterone, and it is these peaks and troughs that can affect emotions. The NHS suggests this fluctuation can also affect the level of serotonin produced by the body, which is responsible for regulating your mood.
The menopause is caused when a woman's ovaries start to produce less and less oestrogen than usual. This causes the menstrual cycle to stop, as the ovaries stop producing eggs. The decline in oestrogen production at this time can have a lot of side effects, including trouble sleeping, mood swings, and sudden hot flashes. These are some of the more common symptoms that may indicate the menopause starting.
Many women undergo treatment for these symptoms, including Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
- The Pituitary Foundation - Your hormones
- Hormone Health Network - What are hormones, and what do they do?
- Health Guidance - List of human hormones and their importance
- NHS Choices – Hormone replacement therapy
- British Society for Neuroendocrinology – Sex hormones, mood, mental state and memory
- NHS Choices - Premenstrual Syndrome
- American Pregnancy Association - Mood swings during pregnancy
- NHS Choices - Menopause