Hormones are among the least understood actors in the human body. Unless you are (or know) someone who has a condition involving glands or hormones, such as hypothyroidism, you might be forgiven for thinking hormones only appear in the bodies of teenagers and women in the early days of their menstrual cycle. Those are, after all, the only times people refer to hormones. This isn’t to say that the effect of hormones isn’t particularly prominent during such times, but we all – regardless of age or sex – have hormones operating in our bodies all the time. Before I talk more about the word “hormonal” as a synonym for “moody,” I’d like to discuss what hormones really are.
Hormones usually quietly do their thing in the background, and that’s one reason we tend not to learn much about them. Like a house’s plumbing, most people don’t care how it works as long as it does work. But the other reason that we tend not to know about hormones and the system by which they operate (the endocrine system) is because it gets complicated. For example, the same chemical may act as a hormone or a neurotransmitter depending upon what receptor it connects to.
So, let’s simplify. Like your phone, we can think of your body as having two major communication systems. The nervous system is like the telephone. You can send information back and forth between two points very quickly with the phone, and the same is true of the nervous system. It’s fast communication from one point to the other, but without any lingering of the information.
The endocrine system is more like your email or a WhatsApp group. You can send information to many destinations at once, but some will get the message much more quickly than others. (And some may miss it altogether and others may get the message that you wish hadn’t.) And the message just sits there without ending as soon as the phone conversation is over. In short, the endocrine system sends its messages slowly, broadly, and in a long-lived manner compared to the nervous system.
While hormones operate quietly in the background most of the time, there are times the body turns on the spigot and floods the system. Let me give a couple examples of how you feel hormonal action in your body whether or not you happen to be a teenager or a menstruating woman. Imagine a bus unexpectedly sounds its air-horn a meter away from you, you’ll probably feel an intense jolt as adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine) is squirted from the adrenal glands into your bloodstream to ramp up the body for fight or flight. And you’ve certainly felt the action of the hormone ghrelin before when it signaled hunger throughout your body to encourage you to eat. And if you respond to that hunger with sugary foods like gulab jamun, you may have felt the sluggishness resulting from an imbalance of sugar and the insulin hormone secreted to mop up that sugar.
Our bodies have an internal wisdom. This wisdom is in large part carried out in the form of feedback cycles that maintain balance in the body. You may have heard the term homeostasis. Homeostasis is a process of balancing a number of factors including body temperature, blood acidity, blood sugar, and hormone levels. For example, in menstruation a process begins with hormone secretion from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland, but as the cycle continues it relies on feedback from the ovaries back to the brain. If we had to consciously plot all these homeostatic changes, we’d die. Often the best that can be done is to achieve a relaxed state and let the body do its work.
So, if we are all hormonal — all the time — why has “hormonal” come to be thought of as meaning “moody.” As mentioned above, hormones are broad-acting. So while the body might be pumping out hormones with the intention of causing the wall of a woman’s uterus to thicken in preparation for the possibility of pregnancy, those hormones will travel everywhere that blood circulates, including the brain.
However, the same hormone may dock in multiple receptors. Imagine a hotel that has one hundred rooms, but only fifty different keys. Your key is only meant to allow you to get into your room, but as a side-effect it could allow someone to break into one of the other rooms. Once in the brain, hormones may fit receptors that have effects that were unintended when your glands started pumping out the hormones.
Of course, that is not the full picture. The messengers and intended recipients inside the body mostly get mixed up when the body is going through a phase of stress.This leads to the discomfort that can cause sleep loss, and wear on one’s nerves over time, making conditions ripe for little things to cause irritation or dismay.
So where does yoga come into the picture?One crucial skill taught in yoga is the ability to recognize when one one needs rest and to achieve a heightened state of relaxation. This in turn harmonises most of our feedback cycles. When our body learns to turn on the rest and digest response, it heals itself and its original strength is restored. The meditative aspects of yoga offer another helping hand. For the person experiencing hormonal effects and side-effects, yoga helps one become more in tune with one’s body, and to non-judgmentally witness what is happening. The answer comes in the ability to recognize these hormonal effects as passing weather. This allows one to maintain perspective and avoid attaching value judgments that are purely products of the mind. For the yoga practitioner who is interacting with someone suffering from hormonal disruption, being more aware and non-judgmental can help one to be compassionate for people who are experiencing pain, discomfort, sleep loss, etc. as a result of hormonal changes.
In essence, harmony is at the root of hormonal balance. To slow down and let our body’s innate sense of balance kick in helps the hormones function efficiently.