The Endocrine System – a system of hormonal balances

The hormone system of your body is called the endocrine system. It is a collection of hormone producing glands and cells in different parts of your body.

What are hormones?

Hormones are complex messenger chemicals that are released into the bloodstream by endocrine glands. They target specific cells and tissues and alter their activity, to regulate body functions, such as metabolism, growth and sexual reproduction.

What’s in a hormone?

Hormones are made up of molecules from steroids, proteins or an amino acid called tyrosine. A hormone doesn’t become active until it is bound to a specific receptor on a cell or inside it. Hormones from proteins bind to receptors on the outside of the cell membrane. Hormones from steriods and tyrosine pass inside the cell and bind to receptors in the cytoplasm or the nucleus.

What are the main endocrine glands?

Thyroid Gland

The thyroid is located around your trachea (the windpipe). It releases a hormone called thyroxine which targets your body’s cells to increase your metabolic rate (the rate at which oxygen is used to release energy from glucose). The thyroid gland controls not just metabolism but also body weight, the rate of energy use and heart rate. Unlike most other glands, it can store thyroxine.

Parathyroid Glands

These are four small glands located on the back of the thyroid gland. They release parathyroid hormone which increases levels of calcium in your blood. Calcium is necessary for healthy bones and teeth, as well as to ensure muscles and nerves work properly.

Adrenal Glands

You have two adrenal glands located on top of your kidneys. The adrenal cortex is the outer part and makes several hormones that control metabolism in cells as well as salt levels in body fluids. The inner part is called the adrenal medulla. It produces adrenalin, which helps you respond to stress.

The hormone cortisol is produced by the middle layer of the adrenal cortex. It is a stress hormone and is vital to our survival. It helps maintain blood pressure, glucose levels, controls how the body utilises fat, protein, carbohydrates and minerals and it also helps reduce inflammation. When we are under stress, it is produced in larger amounts.

Pineal Gland

The pineal gland regulates your body’s internal clock by releasing varying amounts of melatonin. You have higher levels of melatonin at night, to make you feel sleepy, and lower amounts during the day.

Pituitary Gland

This “master” gland is the size of a raisin and releases eight hormones. It controls the activities of many other endocrine glands and cells. The pituitary gland hangs from the base of the brain and is attached by a short stalk to the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that controls pituitary function. Pituitary hormones control growth, metabolism and reproduction, either directly or by making other glands release hormones.

The anterior (front) of the pituitary gland produces the hormone prolactin (which stimulates breast milk production after giving birth). It also affects sex hormone levels in ovaries and testes as well as fertility.

Growth hormone stimulates growth in childhood. In adults it is important for maintaining bone and muscle mass. It also affects fat distribution in the body.

Adrenocorticotropin stimulates the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands.

Thyroid-stimulating hormone stimulates the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones.

Luteinising hormone stimulates testosterone production in men and ovulation in women.

Follicle-stimulating hormone promotes sperm production in men and stimulates the ovaries to produce oestrogen and develop eggs in women. Luteinising hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone work together to enable normal function of the ovaries and testes.

The posterior (back) of the pituitary gland is where the following hormones are stored:

Antidiuretic hormone (vasopressin) regulates water balance in the body. It conserves body water by reducing the amount of water lost in urine.

Oxytocin causes milk to flow from the breasts in breastfeeding women and may help labour to progress.

Thymus Gland

The thymus gland releases hormones that are essential for the development of lymphocytes, which have the ability to identify invading organisms and are therefore essential to a healthy immune system.

Pancreas

The pancreas releases two hormones which control glucose levels in your blood. One hormone is insulin, which decreases glucose levels. The other hormone is glucagon, which increases glucose levels. Together, they regulate your glucose levels, so you can have enough energy during the day, even when you’re very active.

Ovaries

Eggs are released by the ovaries in adult women. Ovaries also produce the female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, which produce female features and control the menstrual cycle.

Testes

The testes make sperm in adult men and also release the male sex hormone testosterone, which stimulates sperm production in the testes and also produces adult male features, including increased facial and body hair and muscular body shape.

Other parts of the body that release hormones

The hypothalamus is a cluster of nerve cells at the base of the brain. Through its connection to the pituitary gland, this part of the brain provides a link between the endocrine system and nervous system. The hypthalamus makes hormones that control the release of hormones from the pituitary gland.

The heart releases a hormone called atriopeptin that controls blood pressure.

The stomach wall releases a hormone that aids digestion.

The kidneys make a hormone called erythropoietin, that increases production of red blood cells in bone marrow.

The small intestine releases hormones that stimulate digestion.

What is adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is not a proven medical condition. Symptoms are supposedly trouble falling asleep, chronic fatigue and trouble thinking clearly or finishing tasks (which is natural if you were exhausted). These are common symptoms and could be due to other health problems or just happen during our normal busy lives.

Fatigue can be due to poor sleep habits (which is very common nowadays), stress, poor diet, depression, anaemia, arthritis or diabetes. Because chronic fatigue may be due to another condition, it is important that you see your doctor for a diagnosis rather than a complementary therapist. A therapist (even a nutritionist) may simply sell you a series of supplements or suggest food intolerance tests that is unlikely to get to the cause of the problem.

There is no test to detect adrenal fatigue that is based on scientific facts. If you are offered a blood or saliva test, you’re paying for results that have no basis in science.

There is a danger in taking adrenal hormone supplements as your adrenal glands may stop working and become unable to make adrenaline when needed. If this happens, your adrenal glands can become inactive for a period of time after you stop taking supplements. There is also the risk of developing a life-threatening condition called adrenal crisis.

What is Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome?

I hadn’t heard of this before I started doing research for this post, but I have seen posts about it from people who believe they have it and you can buy books in the UK purporting to help if you have it, so here’s some information in case a complementary therapist diagnoses you with it.

As with adrenal fatigue, the symptoms are non-specific enough to be part of other health problems and include low body temperature and slowing metabolism, caused by illness or stress. It was a theory developed by a Dr Wilson in 1990 who says it represents a thyroid hormone deficiency, even though low hormone levels are not detected in blood tests. This is not an accepted condition and is totally unproven.

And finally

I hope this has helped you understand a little more about how your endocrine system works. If part of the system isn’t working, your doctor may send you for blood tests or to see an endocrinologist, who specialises in the endocrine system. It’s never a good idea to see a complementary therapist for treatment of a complex system of the body. Should you trust your health to someone who may only have completed a short course in selling supplements and tests and tell you about unproven theories, rather than a medical professional who has years of experience and is able to diagnose whether you have a potentially serious condition? As someone who works in the same building as other therapists and who sees how quickly they add new “therapies” to their practices, I would never see a complementary therapist for a medical condition. Give me a doctor, every time.

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The Lymphatic System and Immunity

The lymphatic system is part of your body’s immune system. It is a network of lymph vessels that goes to almost every part of your body. If you look at a diagram of the lymphatic system, it looks a bit like the circulatory system, with branches of vessels.

The Lymph Journey

The smallest branches of the lymphatic system are the lymph capillaries that drain lymph from the tissues. Lymph is carried from the capillaries to larger lymph vessels. These vessels empty lymph into two ducts in the upper body (right lymphatic duct and thoracic duct). It then goes into the subclavian veins and joins the bloodstream again. Lymph nodes and the other lymph organs protect the body against infection.

What is lymph?

Lymph is excess fluid that leaks out of blood vessels and collects in between the cells of the body’s tissues. It then drains into the network of lymph capillaries and moves through the lymph system until it is emptied back into the bloodstream.

What is a lymph node?

Lymph nodes are bean shaped filters along the lymphatic system. Inside each node are cavities containing two types of white blood cells (lymphocytes and macrophages) which neutralise or destroy micro-organisms in lymph before it goes back into the bloodstream. These play a big part in defending the body against infection. Lymph from most tissues filters through at least one node before returning to the bloodstream.

How does lymph circulate through the body?

When you move, your muscles cause pressure on the lymph system and push it through the vessels. There are valves in the vessels that prevent lymph from flowing backwards, so it can only move in one direction. This muscle action is also how blood in your veins is moved back up your body. Your heart pumps blood outwards through the arteries and your muscles help pump it back through the veins.

What else forms part of the lymphatic system?

The tonsils and adenoids produce antibodies to destroy bacteria from food and the air.

The lacrimal gland behind the eyelid produces tears with every blink. Tears contain a protective enzyme called lysozyme that kills bacteria.

The thymus gland is located behind the breastbone (sternum) and between the lungs. This is where disease-fighting T-cells (lymphocytes) mature.

The spleen is the largest of the lymph organs. It produces antibodies and also filters out damaged red blood cells.

The popliteal nodes are behind the knees and help drain excess lymph from the legs and feet.

Lymphocytes start off as stem cells in bone marrow. The largest of the white blood cells, monocytes, are also generated in the bone marrow. These migrate from the blood into tissue spaces where they develop into scavenger cells called macrophages that ingest bacteria and dead cells.

What is an inflammatory response?

If a disease micro-organism is detected in the body’s tissues, you may get an inflammatory response, which increases blood flow and brings special cells called neutrophils to the infected area to ingest and destroy the micro-organism.

What is an immune response?

If infection isn’t dealt with effectively by the inflammatory response, the body’s immune responses may be activated. This can be in the form of an antibody response or cellular defence. Inflammatory responses depend on white blood cells called B and T lymphocytes to provide protection against future infections.

What happens during an antibody response?

White blood cells called B lymphocytes recognise foreign molecules from disease organisms (antigens) that are different from the body’s natural proteins. Antigens trigger B cells to multiply. Some develop into plasma cells which secrete antibodies, which are special proteins that inactivate the antigens.

What happens during a cellular defence?

Antigens activate T cells to multiply. Killer T cells detect antigens and attack them with proteins called lymphokines. Some of the T cells become memory T cells which may survive for many years and respond to an attempted second invasion by the same antigen. They are able to mobilise rapidly.

What is Lymphatic Drainage Massage?

This is is a type of massage that aims to assist lymphatic drainage. The technique used is a way of assisting the lymph to pump back to the main lymph vessels so it returns to the bloodstream.

As with a lot of complementary therapies, there is a list of unproven claims made by therapists. It has been used to help reduce swelling (lymphoedema) after surgery, especially cancer surgery where lymph nodes may have been removed.

If you don’t have any swelling and it hasn’t been suggested by a doctor after cancer treatment or an operation, there is no need for you to have lymphatic drainage massage. The list of claims that lymphatic drainage massage can apparently do is to fix a sluggish lymphatic system, help you to detox, regenerate, ease sinusitis, relieve pain, constipation, insomnia, cellulite and aid weight loss.

None of these claims are proven. Your muscles help move lymph along the lymphatic system so it is doing its job just fine as long as you’re able to move normally. See my post on the liver and detoxing if you don’t already know that you can’t assist the body to detox. Massage cannot help to remove cellulite or aid weight loss. Some of the gels used may hydrate the cells in the surface of the skin, giving it a firmer appearance. You can do the same thing at home with a nourishing skin cream. Neither massage nor skin creams will get rid of cellulite though.

In Conclusion

Our bodies are amazing in the way they work and they do a good job on their own, most of the time. By understanding how your body works, you should be able to make better choices when it comes to making choices about your health.

Selling Snake Oil – The Sad State of Complementary Therapy

Misconceptions about energy

One of my clients, a professional dancer, used to come to me for sports massage and tell me he was ready for some healing. Now, both he and I knew that what he actually meant was that after an hour’s sports massage, there was an improvement in how he felt, there was an increase in his range of motion and how well his body could perform. He didn’t actually think I had healed him because, as a trained dancer, he understood his body.

In the UK, we tend to be poorly educated about how our bodies work. There is a misconception that “energy” is something other than what our cells use to function. It’s an idea appropriated from other cultures and twisted to fit into certain therapies. It’s not a Western idea and definitely has no scientific basis. The ethereal energy that therapists refer to cannot be measured, so how can it be felt or balanced? You’re taking someone’s word for it that they’re doing something for you, even though you and they have no proof anything is happening. You’re also paying for it.

I picked up a business card from a therapist who does transformational energy release body work as an example of the nonsense therapies you can find. The card has the words “the body remembers, the body knows”. There is a quack theory that when you experience trauma, it is stored in the body and by using either a certain massage technique or a “healing” therapy, you can release the memories of the trauma from that part of the body where it was stored. How can you even test for this to prove it is true. If you have experienced trauma, you should not be messed about with by someone who has no training in psychology. They may try to prompt you to relive the trauma while doing their “healing” and this can be extremely traumatic and trigger more problems for you.

It worries me that there is no regulation of therapies like this and that there are not enough therapy centres that screen out the quack therapies from the evidence based ones.

Complementary therapists are not medical professionals

Just because a therapist may wear a medical style outfit and say your body works in a particular way, doesn’t mean they are telling the truth. They may even believe it themselves. Some of the things I was taught at my massage courses weren’t true. This would be the nonsense about detoxing and lactic acid build up. Your body is actually very effective at both detoxing itself and removing lactic acid from the muscles.

Some complementary therapy courses are very short, in fact, some are only one weekend long or are made up of a few weekends or can be done online, after which the therapist receives a diploma or certificate and can practice the therapy and take money from you. Even if a course is longer, if the therapy is based on unproven or invalid theories, it’s as worthless as a one day course.

A complementary therapist is not qualified to diagnose a medical condition and should not suggest that any major lifestyle or dietary changes be followed. That’s for your GP or, for your diet, a registered dietician.

Not all GPs are easy to talk to and some don’t understand anything that isn’t a straightforward disease that they are used to treating. Waiting times for appointments can be lengthy too. However, it’s still the best route to proper science-based treatment. A complementary therapist may give you a medical sounding explanation or tell you that conventional medicine is full of harmful chemicals and you should only have their therapy or tell you your energy is unbalanced and they can cure you. Once again, these are not people qualified in medicine. If you are misdiagnosed and sold a course of treatment that harms you or does absolutely nothing for you, the setback can be dangerous to your health and your wallet.

If you have had a diagnosis from a complementary therapist, get it checked out by your GP. One client had been to a kinesiologist who told her she was lactose intolerant. I suggested she see her doctor to at least have it confirmed and, if necessary, added to her medical records. Where’s the harm in that?

Complementary therapy is a business, like banking or estate agents

Therapists need to make a living and there are a lot of therapists with more qualifying every week. It is a struggle getting enough clients because we often tend to be concentrated in the same areas. Shortly after the recession was over, my massage business was booming and then about 4 years ago, there was a sudden increase in the number of massage therapists in London and, naturally, business dropped off.

I wasn’t the only one who felt the effects of this and nowadays there are very few massage therapists who only practice massage. Most have added other therapies, some of which are decidedly unscientific and the more therapies they offer, the greater the chance of making a living. I refuse to add what I feel are dodgy therapies and instead I take on transcription typing work, which I keep totally separate from my massage practice.

My advice to you is to question everything. Think for yourself. Do your research and then do it again because there’s some weird stuff on the internet written by people who have no medical or scientific qualifications. Here are some questions to ask to help you work your way through the complementary/alternative therapy minefield:

Is this person qualified, insured and a member of a professional body? Look for these details on their website and if you can’t find the information, contact them to ask. I’m proud to be a member of a professional body, which arranges my insurance and keeps copies of my qualifications. I have clients who ask me where I qualified (I have a funny accent) and I don’t mind at all.

How clear is their website about their approach and what to expect from them? It’s not hard to set up a website and it doesn’t cost as much as it did a decade ago. There’s no excuse for not being clear or not having all the relevant information.

How quickly do they respond to your questions and are the questions answered or do you get vague replies? If you email or leave a message, you should expect a reply after a few hours (unless you’re sending an email late at night or on their day off). If the answers you get aren’t clear enough, steer clear.

What is the therapist selling? Do they sell just one service? Do they also sell supplements and diagnostic testing? Some therapists suggest you need a course of all their therapies, not just the one you wanted.

Get a recommendation from a friend Someone who has been to see a therapist can give you the best idea of what to expect and if they were helpful. You could also look at online reviews, but I do know of therapists who get people to give them reviews, so I’m not convinced these are always genuine. Even sites like Treatwell (which has lists of therapists in different areas and which doesn’t check the qualifications of therapists) suggested to me that I get friends and family to give me reviews.

Can complementary therapies make you feel better?

Allowing someone else to look after you for an hour and giving them the power to do something for you can be relaxing and therapeutic. Lying still for a period of time and listening to music can help lower your blood pressure. This is fine as it’s doing you no harm.

Some nutritional therapists will suggest you avoid certain foods if you have digestive problems. This may make you feel better if you were intolerant to a food, but a nutritional therapist can’t give you a definitive diagnosis if they don’t use scientific methods. Only a medical professional (doctor/dietician) can.

Can a therapy cause harm?

If you’re told to avoid a certain food and the therapist doesn’t emphasize how important it is to replace the nutrients you would have received in the food you’ve eliminated, you may damage your health. You’re unlikely to see a therapist if there’s nothing wrong with you, so if you are told you have a medical condition that you don’t have and receive treatment for it that is unnecessary, that could exacerbate any existing conditions.

There are therapists who talk about how bad chemicals are and that conventional medical treatment makes you worse but that their treatment will cure you. Chemicals make up our world and form our bodies. Oxygen is a chemical and so is calcium. Conventional medical treatment might sometimes be tedious or less than perfect, but it has been tested and reviewed by scientists. If you are receiving treatment from a doctor, don’t stop it and change to an alternative therapy. Rather, speak to your doctor, who may even say it’s not harmful to have the therapy as well as the treatment you’re already receiving and it may help you feel better, depending on what it is.

There are some therapies used to treat mental health issues that should not be done at all, never mind by someone who has no training in counselling or psychology. The therapy I mentioned earlier where trauma is supposedly released in the body is one of these. There is another that I came across last year that claims to be able to treat PTSD. It was invented by someone who, according to the person taking the course, was trying to get the US health insurers to agree to cover it. It uses a combination of elements taken from other therapies and a specific hand movements using both hands, which is apparently very important. When I asked how a veteran who may have lost one arm would do the hand movements, I was told it could be done by proxy. I asked if that meant the patient would be watching the therapist doing the hand movement and the answer was that it could be done without them even being present. I naturally replied that you could easily say you had done the hand movements and not have done a thing. How on earth can someone doing a hand movement in their own home influence your life?

True believers

I do believe some therapists are unaware that they are doing quack therapies. They may never question what they were taught on their courses. They may have paid a lot of money for a course and convince themselves that the therapy is sound. Then there are the ones who are completely aware that they are offering nonsense therapies and are simply out to make as much money from each client that they can.

Keep asking

Humans became the dominant species partly by being curious and trying to understand how we and the world around us works. It’s your body and your right to know the truth. No matter how desperate you are, don’t be blinded by pseudo-science, real science is always the answer.