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Hormones play a crucial role in health. They affect virtually all cells in the body, influencing everything from metabolism to memory to mood.
Here's a look at four key hormones — and how to help keep them working well for you.
Within seconds after you sense danger — real or imagined — your adrenal glands pump out epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Your heart pounds, you breathe faster and your blood pressure rises.
"If your survival is on the line, this can be lifesaving," says Megan Hood, PhD, a psychologist at Rush University Medical Center. “But if you constantly feel under attack because of stress, you might jeopardize your health."
Take control: Tame your body's fight-or-flight response with deep breathing.
"It's an easy way to calm down and offset the rapid breathing that adrenaline triggers," Hood says.
Here's how: Breathe in to the count of four. Hold your breath for two counts. Then breathe out for four counts. Do this for five to 10 minutes, several times each day as a regular stress reliever — plus whenever you feel anxious.
If you constantly feel under attack because of stress, you might jeopardize your health.
If you continue to feel threatened after that first burst of epinephrine, your adrenal glands secrete cortisol. The body's primary stress hormone, it helps keep you on high alert.
"While clearly beneficial in a crisis, consistently high cortisol stimulates your appetite and may add pounds — especially around your middle — raising heart disease risk," Hood says.
Over time, a chronic buildup of cortisol may also suppress immunity, which may hamper your ability to fight infections.
Take control: Simple ways of relaxing, such as petting your dog (or cat), listening to music or even sipping tea, can help keep cortisol in check.
Also, try to change the way you look at stress in your life, Hood says. If, for example, an upcoming work deadline unnerves you, tell yourself that making it is your chance to shine.
Produced by the pancreas, insulin allows cells to absorb glucose (blood sugar) and use it for energy.
Some people, however, develop a condition called insulin resistance, in which cells don't properly take up glucose and sugar starts to build up in the blood. In an attempt to keep glucose levels down, the pancreas churns out more and more insulin.
Eventually, the pancreas may not be able to keep up with the body's increased need for insulin and too much glucose may end up in the blood — leading to Type 2 diabetes.
Take control: "Being obese, or even overweight, raises the risk of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes," says Tiffany Hor, MD, an endocrinologist at Rush. Losing extra pounds — and moving more — can help your body use insulin properly, she says.
Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise (such as a brisk walk) a week. If you're overweight, aim for an initial goal of losing 5 to 10 percent of your weight. Studies show that even a modest weight loss coupled with exercise can delay — or even prevent — Type 2 diabetes in people at high risk for the disease.
Even if you already have Type 2 diabetes, exercise can increase your sensitivity to insulin and help control the disease, Hor says.
Secreted by your pituitary gland, oxytocin appears to improve mood, build trust and help us bond. And it's often called the cuddle hormone because we secrete it in response to physical affection — from humans or animals.
Research reveals, for example, that mothers and babies both produce higher levels of oxytocin when they have lots of warm, physical contact. Couples who regularly hug, hold hands and sit close also produce more oxytocin than those who don't. Even petting a cat or dog boosts oxytocin.
We also secrete this hormone when we reach out emotionally and seek support and connections with others, Hood says.
Take control: How can you boost oxytocin? Tap into touch by hugging your partner or child — or curling up with a pet.
"And do your best to connect with others in a positive way," Hood says. Share a meal with a neighbor. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Or send a catch-up email to a faraway friend.
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