The hypothalamus is a small area in the center of the brain that has many jobs. It plays an important role in hormone production and helps to stimulate many important processes in the body.
When the hypothalamus is not working properly, it can cause problems in the body leading to many disorders. Though diseases of the hypothalamus are uncommon, it is important to keep it healthy to keep the risk low.
What is the hypothalamus?
The word hypothalamus comes from two Greek words that translate to “under thalamus.” This is exactly where the hypothalamus is located in the brain, underneath the thalamus and above the pituitary gland.
Though it is a small area of the brain, it plays a big role in the body by influencing both the endocrine and nervous system.
Functions of the hypothalamus
The body’s normal, balanced state of being is known as homeostasis. The body is always trying to achieve this balance. The main job of the hypothalamus to keep the body in this state as much as possible.
The hypothalamus plays a huge role in both the endocrine and nervous systems.
To do this, the hypothalamus acts as the connector between the endocrine and nervous systems. It plays a part in many essential functions of the body such as:
- Body temperature
- Appetite and weight control
- Sleep cycles
- Sex drive
- Blood pressure and heart rate
- Production of digestive juices
- Balancing bodily fluids
As signals are sent to the brain from different areas of the body, they let the hypothalamus know if balance is not being achieved. The hypothalamus then responds by releasing the right hormones into the bloodstream to balance the body back out.
One example of this is the body’s ability to maintain an internal temperature of 98.6°F. If the hypothalamus receives the signal that the body’s internal temperature is too hot, it will tell the body to sweat. If it receives the signal that the temperature is too cold, the body will create its own heat by shivering.
Hormones of the hypothalamus
To maintain this balance, the hypothalamus is responsible for creating or controlling many hormones in the body. The hypothalamus is also closely related to the pituitary gland, which makes and sends other important hormones around the body.
Together, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland work to control the entire endocrine system, the glands that produce many hormones of the body. This includes the adrenal glands, kidneys, and thyroid.
Hormones secreted by the hypothalamus include:
- An antidiuretic hormone, which increases how much water is absorbed into the blood by the kidneys
- Corticotropin-releasing hormones that help regulate metabolism and immune response by working with the pituitary gland and adrenal gland to release certain steroids
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormones that tell the pituitary gland to release hormones that keep the sexual organs working
- Oxytocin is involved in many processes, including the release of a mother’s breast milk, body temperature, and sleep cycles
- Prolactin-controlling hormones tell the pituitary gland to either start or stop breast milk production in lactating mothers
- Thyrotropin-releasing hormone activates the thyroid; this releases the hormones that regulate metabolism, energy levels, and developmental growth
Growth hormones are also directly affected by the hypothalamus. It tells the pituitary gland to either increase or decrease their number in the body. This is essential for both growing children and fully developed adults.
Any disorder that keeps the hypothalamus from properly working is known as a hypothalamic disease. Hypothalamic diseases are very hard to pinpoint because the hypothalamus has such a wide range of roles in the endocrine system.
The hypothalamus also plays the important role of signaling the pituitary gland to release hormones to the rest of the endocrine system. As it is difficult for doctors to diagnose which gland isn’t working properly, these disorders are often called hypothalamus-pituitary disorders. In these cases, there are some hormone tests that doctors may prescribe to get to the root of the disorder.
Causes and risk factors
The most common causes of hypothalamic diseases are injuries to the head that impact the hypothalamus. Surgeries can also affect the hypothalamus, as well as radiation and tumors.
In some cases, there may also be a genetic link to hypothalamic disease. For instance, Kallman syndrome causes hypothalamic problems in children, most noticeably delayed or absent puberty and impaired sense of smell.
In cases of Prader-Willi Syndrome, hypothalamus problems appear to have a genetic link in the disease.
Additional causes of hypothalamic disease may include:
- Eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia
- Diets high in saturated fats
- Genetic disorders that cause excess iron buildup in the body
- Excessive bleeding
Symptoms of hypothalamus disorders
Symptoms of hypothalamus disorders vary depending on what hormones are missing from the body. Children may show signs of abnormal growth and abnormal puberty. Adults may show problems linked to the various hormones their bodies cannot produce.
There is usually a traceable link between the absent hormones and the symptoms they produce in the body. Symptoms caused by tumors may include blurred vision, loss of vision, and headaches. Low adrenal function may produce symptoms such as weakness and dizziness.
Symptoms caused by an overactive thyroid gland include:
- Sensitivity to cold
- Hair loss
- Menstrual cycle changes
- Lower mental capacity
- Weight gain
Diet tips for hypothalamus health
As the hypothalamus plays such a vital role in the body, it is very important to keep it healthy. While genetic factors cannot be avoided, there are some dietary steps towards ideal hypothalamus health that can be taken on a daily basis.
The hypothalamus controls the appetite and is actually affected by foods that are eaten. Studies have shown that diets high in saturated fats can alter the function of the hypothalamus that regulates hunger and energy expenditure.
Sources of saturated fats include lard, meat, and dairy products. Diets high in saturated fats have also been found to have an inflammatory effect on the body. This can affect the immune system, increasing the chances of it targeting healthy body cells, increasing inflammation in the gut, and altering the natural working of the body.
Diets high in polyunsaturated fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, can help to reverse this inflammation. These fats may be a safe alternative to other types of oils and fats. Foods with a high omega-3 content include fish, walnuts, flax seeds, and leafy vegetables.
Additional healthy dietary choices to support the hypothalamus and best brain function include:
- Vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins
A working hypothalamus is one of the most important parts of the body, and it usually goes unnoticed until it stops working properly. Following these dietary tips can help to keep the hypothalamus happy and working well.
Written by Jon Johnson