The hypothalamus is an essential part of the human brain and is often considered the “control center” for most hormones. Its working relationship with the pituitary gland as well as the adrenal glands affects our nervous systems as well as our endocrine systems.
What does the hypothalamus do exactly? For starters, it plays a part in our calorie intake, weight regulation and body heat. I’m sure you’re starting to get the picture that, even if you weren’t already familiar with hypothalamus function, it clearly is important to human existence.
The hypothalamus is located deep within the brain, just above the base of the skull. Its main general function is to regulate homeostasis of our bodies.
In other words, it helps keep the human body in a constant, steady state. When the hypothalamus doesn’t function properly, this throws off the functioning of the pituitary gland, which controls the adrenals, ovaries, testes and thyroid gland. So when hypothalamus function isn’t right, there are a lot of other things affected that are all vital to good health.
Recent research even shows that many aspects of aging are controlled by the hypothalamus. Studies give hope to the possibility that we may be able to change signaling within the hypothalamus to slow down the aging process and increase longevity.
Let’s take a look at exactly when and how this part of the brain can affect our health and how we can naturally boost the function of this underrated gland.
What Is the Hypothalamus?
The hypothalamus is a small structure in your brain that’s about the size of an almond. If you’re familiar with brain anatomy, the hypothalamus is located underneath the thalamus, and it descends from the brain into the pituitary stalk, which connects to your pituitary gland.
The hypothalamus coordinates activity of the autonomic nervous system and also plays a significant role in the function of the endocrine system due to its complex relationship with the pituitary gland.
It contains specialized nuclei designed to do specific work, such as maintaining many basic physiological functions, including body temperature, blood pressure, fluid and electrolyte balance, and the regulation of digestion.
How exactly does the hypothalamus function in our bodies? It links our endocrine and nervous systems together, and the pituitary gland receives signals from the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are connected by both nervous and chemical pathways, and the hypothalamus produces and secretes neurotransmitters, neuropeptides and several neurohormones.
The hypothalamus produces hormones that travel down through the pituitary stalk to the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, where these hormones are released directly into the bloodstream.
Vital hormones produced in the hypothalamus include:
- Anti-diuretic hormone
- Corticotropin-releasing hormone
- Growth hormone-releasing hormone
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone
- Thyrotropin-releasing hormone
The hypothalamus is also vital to proper thyroid function and health. The primary hormones that are produced by the thyroid are called T4 and T3. Their production depends on the hypothalamus accurately sensing the need for more thyroid hormone in the bloodstream and signaling the pituitary gland to then release more.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone is normally released by the pituitary gland in response to changing levels of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream, but if you have hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease, this system fails.
Overall, the hypothalamus produces hormones that control:
- Body temperature
- Heart rate
- Release of hormones from many glands, especially the pituitary gland
- Sex drive
The hypothalamus also helps regulate appetite and weight, salt and water balance, emotions, growth, child birth, and milk production. As you can tell, this part of the brain is essential to some truly pivotal life variables and events.
Surgery, traumatic brain injury, radiation and tumors are the most common causes of hypothalamus malfunction. There are also a number of other possible roots of a hypothalamus disorder, including:
- Infections and inflammation
- Head trauma
- Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia
- Genetic disorders that cause bodily iron buildup
How can you know if you have something wrong with your hypothalamus? There are various symptoms depending on the root cause, but some of the most common signs of an unhealthy hypothalamus include a slow heart rate, increased appetite and rapid weight gain. Extreme thirst and frequent urination may also be signs of a hypothalamus problem as well as diabetes insipidus.
Some disorders that are associated with hypothalamus malfunction include but are not limited to:
Multiple studies have linked hypothalamus malfunction with obesity, an extreme excess of body weight. This isn’t surprising since we know that the hypothalamus plays a huge role in metabolism and energy expenditure. The term “hypothalamic obesity” describes intractable weight gain after damage to the hypothalamus.
Unfortunately, hypothalamic obesity can be a complication for some brain tumor survivors, especially if they received their diagnoses as children. Research shows that an estimated third of all craniopharyngioma survivors develop severe obesity after diagnosis and treatment.
2. Adrenal Insufficiency
Low adrenal function or adrenal insufficiency is associated with hypothalamus malfunction. The hypothalamus is a part of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and plays a significant part in adrenal insufficiency.
Under ideal circumstances, the hypothalamus sends the pituitary gland “releasing hormones” in order to control sex hormone production, thyroid and adrenal functions. The pituitary gland then has the job of communicating with the adrenals, sending it the stimulating hormone called adrenocorticotropin that’s meant to prompt adrenal hormone production.
Usually, the adrenals do their job, making proper levels of cortisol and other hormones, and the pituitary gland and hypothalamus get the message — but in people with adrenal insufficiency, all of the communication lines are thrown off. Low adrenal function symptoms may include dizziness or weakness.
3. Cluster Headaches
Recent studies have shown that the hypothalamus is stimulated during a cluster headache attack. A 2013 study conducted in China detected significant increases of functional correlation to the right hypothalamus in cluster headache patients during acute spontaneous cluster headache “in attack” periods in comparison to those during the “out of attack” periods.
Researchers concluded that cluster headache patients have a dysfunction of brain function connectivity, mainly in brain regions that are related to pain processing.
Other health concerns associated with hypothalamic dysfunction include:
- Brain tumors
- Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s disease
- Gonadal deficiency or secondary failure
- Growth hormone deficiency
- Secondary male hypogonadism
Hormonal changes affect the hypothalamus, which controls body temperature, and this leads to the common complaint of “hot flashes” reported by women going through menopause. Also, if you’re a woman experiencing infertility, it may be due to polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is related to unhealthy hypothalamus function.
Natural Ways to Boost Hypothalamus Function
1. Increase Chromium Intake
Chromium is a trace mineral needed by the body in small amounts for healthy functioning. The hypothalamus is extremely important, a central part of the autonomic nervous system that helps controls body temperature, thirst, hunger, sleep and emotional activity.
Studies have linked chromium with a healthier hypothalamus. Research suggests that it can help keep the hypothalamus in a more youthful state, better regulate appetite in elderly adults and prevent negative effects on brain neurons caused by aging.
The USDA reports that these are the best food sources for obtaining more chromium naturally through your diet:
- Grass-fed beef
- Green beans
You may want to consider supplementing with chromium, but the benefits of taking chromium supplements are still somewhat controversial and questioned by some medical experts since studies to date show mixed results. If you can, it’s best to get chromium from natural foods.
2. Use Essential Oils
Essential oils of frankincense and myrrh don’t just have extremely lengthy histories of use dating back to biblical times — they’ve also been shown to improve brain health. Two primary active compounds called terpenes and sesquiterpenes are found in both frankincense and myrrh oil. Both of these compounds have shown anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects on the body.
Sesquiterpenes are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the limbic system of the brain and other glands promoting memory and releasing emotions. Sesquiterpenes have been found to increase oxygen around receptor sites near the hypothalamus, pineal and pituitary glands. Sesquiterpenes also specifically have an effect on our emotional center in the hypothalamus, helping us remain calm and balanced.
There are many ways to incorporate frankincense and myrrh into your daily life. You can diffuse the essential oils, inhale them straight from the bottle, or you can mix them with a carrier oil like jojoba and apply the mixture directly to the skin.
You can try making Homemade Frankincense and Myrrh Lotion, which is an awesome way to easily incorporate both of these essential oils into your daily routine.
3. Try Vitex (Especially If You’re a Woman)
Vitex, also known as chaste tree berry, is an herbal supplement highly acclaimed for its ability to help balance female hormones. The medicinal ability of chasteberry to positively affect hormonal health issues appears to be derived from dopaminergic compounds present in the herb.
How exactly does vitex encourage hormonal balance? While it doesn’t supply hormones to the body, it does act directly on the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. For women, it increases luteinizing hormone, modulates prolactin and aids in the inhibition of the release of follicle-stimulating hormone, which all help balance out the ratio of progesterone to estrogen, slightly raising the levels of progesterone.
If you suffer from infertility and/or PCOS, vitex can be particularly helpful. Vitex or chasteberry is available in many different forms in your local health store or online. The dried, ripe chasteberry is used to prepare liquid extracts or solid extracts that are put into capsules and tablets.
If you’re not a fan of capsules or tablets, then the liquid extract is a great choice. You can also easily find vitex in tea form on its own or combined with other herbs that promote hormonal balance. You can order the dried berries and make your own tincture at home as well.
4. Eat Healthy Fats
One of the best ways to balance your hormones through your diet is to regularly consume healthy fats.
Cholesterol and other fats play a fundamental part in building cellular membranes and hormones. Certain kinds of fats, including cholesterol, also act like antioxidants and precursors to some important brain-supporting molecules and neurotransmitters.
Some of my favorite sources of anti-inflammatory, healthy fats include olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, grass-fed butter and wild-caught salmon. Eating good fats like olive oil supports healthy levels of cholesterol, which is an essential aspect of proper hormone synthesis.
5. Get Enough Sleep and Reduce Stress
A report published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism states that stress can lead to changes in the serum level of many hormones including glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone and prolactin.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone synthesized from cholesterol by enzymes. At the right levels, it’s helpful, but when you have too much it can cause problems.
Since cortisol is regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and cortisol is the primary hormone responsible for the stress response, keeping cortisol production at a healthy level through adequate sleep and stress reduction is extremely helpful to the health of your hypothalamus (as well as your pituitary and adrenal glands).
6. Exercise Regularly
Moderate exercise on a regular basis is excellent for your hypothalamus as well as your entire body. A number of studies have found a gamma-amino-butyric acid deficiency in the hypothalamus of hypertensive animal subjects.
A study published in 2000 looked at the relationship between the hypothalamus, exercise and high blood pressure in animal subjects.
In this study, the researchers found that chronic exercise has a positive effect on both gene expression and neuronal activity in the hypothalamus. Not surprisingly, they also found that chronic exercise lowered blood pressure levels in the hypertensive animals.
It appears that exercise not only boosts heart health, but also improves hypothalamus health, and improving both is likely to help lower blood pressure for humans as well as animals.
Studies have also suggested that there are a number of “exercise-induced mechanisms in the hypothalamus” that may contribute healthy metabolic function as well as energy balance.
To determine if you have a problem with your hypothalamus or a syndrome impacting its health, your doctor will likely perform a physical examination and ask about your symptoms. Blood or urine tests will also likely be conducted to evaluate your hormone levels.
If your doctor determines that you have hormone deficiencies, hormone replacement medication will most likely be recommended. Make sure to educate yourself about the side effects of any medication.
Always use caution when using essential oils, especially if you have sensitive skin. Discontinue use if any negative reactions occur. Always test first in a small area before applying an oil all over the skin to make sure you don’t have any allergic reaction.
If you have an ongoing medical condition or are taking medications, consult your doctor before starting any new natural treatments.
- The hypothalamus is a pretty forgotten or unknown gland for most people, but it really is an aspect of our anatomy that plays a major role in our health on a moment-to-moment basis. If the hypothalamus doesn’t work properly, there are so many things that can go wrong.
- The hypothalamus produces hormones that are released into the bloodstream, including oxytocin, growth hormone releasing hormone and thyroid hormones.
- Some things you can do to support the hypothalamus, and the health of your endocrine and nervous systems, include exercising regularly, eating foods rich in chromium and healthy fats, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress.