Understanding hormonal health
The word “hormone” often conjures up negative images for women’s menstrual health, but it isn’t just women who are affected by the hormone system (also called the endocrine system). Hormonal balance for men is important too. This article focuses more so on stress hormones, the HPA axis and the nervous system.
Ayurveda takes a holistic approach considering the whole body, mind and spirit understanding that good health arises through balance of the doshas, dhatus (tissues) and strotas (channels) rather than focussing on individual organs or glands as modern science does. In classical Ayurveda the organs and glands do have names with locations but as their health is dependent on the correct metabolic functioning of the dhatu and not independent of, they are considered part of the dhatu (2).
How does hormonal health work in Ayurveda?
According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe is composed five elements, ether, air, fire, water and earth. There are three primary life forces derived from the five elements that are responsible for all physical and psychological functions in the body and mind. These are known as the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha (7).
Vata is closely related to prana (vital energy) and governs all movement. Pitta governs digestion, transformation and metabolism. Kapha controls anabolism and is the energy of building and lubrication that provides the structure to the physical form (2).
Everyone is born with their unique mix of doshas called prakriti which needs to be kept in balance to remain well and healthy. (2)
Each of the three doshas also has five sub-doshas which all carry out a more specialised role of the dosha function. For example, vata controls movement so its five sub-doshas will all control one particular type of movement. Pitta’s five sub-doshas control different types of transformation and kapha’s sub-doshas control different types of lubrication (2).
|Vata||Air and water||Coordination and movement, governs nervous function, hormone function, anything that moves in the body including the other two doshas.|
|Pitta||Fire and water||Transformation and all chemical and metabolic functions giving the body heat, ability to digest, assimilate and transform things.|
|Kapha||Water and earth||Cohesion so provides structure, support, stability and lubrication.|
Agni (digestive fire)
Ayurveda recognises that we are not what we eat, but what we are able to digest and absorb. If agni is weak then food cannot be properly digested and may ferment in the gut leading to the accumulation of ama (toxins). If agni is too strong it can burn the dhatu (tissue) resulting in dhatu degeneration (2).
The digestive fire in the gut is called Jatharagni. This transforms and breaks down food into a nourishing essence called ahara rasa. This essence is used to build the first dhatu, rasa dhatu (plasma and lymph). Each dhatu has its own agni (dhatu-agni) that works at a cellular level refining the essence and passing it on to the next dhatu. This process is repeated though all seven dhatus with the essence becoming more refined and potent. The last dhatu, shukra dhatu (reproductive fluids), produces ojas (vital essence/immunity) which then moves back through all the dhatus to nourish all the levels of the body. If Jatharagni or dhatu-agni is impaired then the dhatus will be low quality and ojas will also be low. The quality of the dhatus is also reflected in the strotas, organs and glands as these are built and maintained by the dhatu (2).
In modern science hormones are chemical messengers. In Ayurveda chemical messengers are the dhatu-agni (cellular fire) categorized into groups by function, such as digestion or reproduction (2).
Strotas (channels of circulation)
The body contains innumerable channels called strotas that are both visible and invisible. These are a network of collective systems that are the means of circulation and communication between the body, mind and metabolic functions. They provide the pathways for physical substances and emotions to travel and for waste to be removed. Strotas are built and maintained by the dhatu (2).
For proper functioning of a healthy body, endocrine system and hormones, the strotas must be open to allow free circulation of nutrients and other essential substances. If the strotas are blocked then the circulating substances accumulate in the channels affecting interrupting cellular communication, metabolism of the dhatu, preventing waste removal and forming ama (7).
Doshas and the endocrine system
From a modern science perceptive, the endocrine system deals with chemical communication within the body by way of hormones. It works closely with the nervous system. The endocrine glands communicate through the nervous system to coordinate the release of messenger hormones to control digestion, tense or relax muscles or regulate blood flow among other things (4). In Ayurveda, the nervous system and much of the hormonal function is controlled by vata (movement). Pitta is responsible for metabolism and transformation within the body, so controls the endocrine glands and hormones responsible for metabolism (3).
The inter-relatedness between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands is referred to as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis (4). The HPA axis plays an important role in how the body reacts to chronic stress. Besides regulating the stress response the HPA axis helps to maintain basal and stress-related homeostasis of the cardiovascular, immune, metabolic and central nervous systems. Disruption of the HPA axis is at the core of most health issues. For example, when the HPA axis is strong, a woman can often breeze through menopause, but if the HPA axis is depleted and overworked then menopause can be very difficult (4).
The hypothalamus collects information regarding the body’s internal wellbeing and regulates the secretion of hormones from the pituitary. It is part of the brain that activates, controls and regulates the autonomic nervous system, endocrine processes and many functions in the body including body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleep and sexual function (4). In Ayurveda, vata (movement) and pitta (transformation) control the hypothalamus (3).
The pituitary gland releases hormones that govern many vital processes. It receives information from the hypothalamus and other endocrine glands via a complex feedback system. In Ayurveda, the pituitary is also controlled by both vata and pitta (3).
The adrenal glands function closely with the nervous system so are primarily controlled by vata. Kapha controls the adrenal roles in kidney and water metabolism, and pitta is also present through the adrenal role in general metabolic balance. The importance of the adrenals is demonstrated by all three doshas playing a role (3).
The pineal gland produces melatonin and serotonin which are known to interact with the adrenals, thyroid, testes and ovaries. Ayurveda considers a major function of the pineal gland is linking the physical and subtle bodies (etheric, emotional and mental). Vata’s sub dosha, prana vayu controls the pineal (3).
Pitta controls the thyroid as it is responsible for basic metabolic function within the body. The parathyroid regulates levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood and is also controlled by pitta.
The thymus is known to play a role in growth and immune function. In Ayurveda, the thymus is related to kapha and to ojas. It is also related to vata’s sub-dosha vyana vayu which controls balance within the body. (3)
The pancreas is unique in that it is both an endocrine and exocrine gland. In Ayurveda, it is primarily a kapha gland but is also influenced by pitta as the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes (2).
The testes and ovaries are both primarily kapha organs with a known relation to the immunological function and the shukra dhatu (reproductive tissues) which creates ojas (vital essence) (3).
Understanding the root
Modern life is very fast. People are constantly in a state of stress from rushing around, trying to meet tight work deadlines, juggling childcare, social lives and trying to do as much as possible often because of fear of missing out. Modern technology makes it increasingly difficult to switch off and contributes to feelings of being disconnected. Sleep quality also suffers from staying up late or indulging in distractions (social media, films, TV, alcohol) rather than relaxation (self-care) in the evenings (8).
All of these things aggravate vata dosha which governs the endocrine and nervous system. Vitiated vata can cause problems to arise such as anxiety, foggy mind, irregular sleep, digestive issues. Although all three doshas are involved in the functioning of the HPA axis and the rest of the endocrine system, pitta and kapha are unable to move without vata. When vata is vitiated, it can then cause pitta and kapha to also become imbalanced. Imbalances in any of the doshas can cause hormonal disorders (2).
Agni and ama
Imbalanced agni can result from stress, imbalances within the doshas, eating ultra-processed foods or stale foods, from over-eating, eating in front of devices, eating when not hungry or eating late at night. Food that can’t be digested can ferment in the gut resulting in ama (toxins). Ama can be moved through the body by vitiated vata where it can lodge in a weak dhatu causing degeneration and disease. If agni is compromised then the dhatu will not receive the nourishment that they need to build healthy dhatu, organs and strota (7).
Vitiated vata can move ama through the strota where it will settle in any weak dhatu resulting in disease development. If there is a disorder of one endocrine organ, just treating that organ alone will not resolve the issues as the dhatu and strota that support the organ must first be healed and brought back into balance (4).
There are increasing numbers of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and plastics ending up in our food, water and air. Many of these are endocrine disrupters which are similar to human hormones so bind to endocrine receptors either stimulating or blocking normal hormone responses. Toxins from outside the body are known as garvisha (8).
Signs and symptoms
There are many disorders of the endocrine system with varying symptoms. It is always important to consult your health care provider about any symptoms you are experiencing. Some of the common symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction are: (5)
- Wake up tired, or feel fatigued throughout the day
- Cognitive issues such as “brain fog”
- Trouble falling asleep
- Lower tolerance to stress, irritability, short temper
- Weight gain, especially in the midsection
- A weak immune system, getting sick more often
- Hair loss in women
- Low libido
Adaptogenic herbs help the body and mind adapt to stress and balance cortisol by working on the HPA axis. They have a nonspecific defensive response to stress, can increase the power of resistance against multiple stressors physical, mental, chemical, or biological stressors and have a normalising influence on the body and mind (6). Many rasayana (rejuvenative) herbs have adaptogen properties. (7).
Most adaptogens are stimulating but Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen. It enhances endocrine function, especially helping to re-regulate the thyroid, testes and adrenal glands. Ashwagandha is very effective for anxiety, fatigue, foggy head, stress induced insomnia and nervous exhaustion due to its nervine and adaptogen functions (5). Ashwagandha has a sweet post digestive (vipaka) taste indicating its deep nutritive and hormonal properties as well as its ability to strengthen and nourish the nervous system (4).
Brahmi has the ability to calm mental turbulence and is particularly good at relieving vata disorders. It increases resilience to stress, combats nervous exhaustion and is used for low thyroid function. It is cleansing and can chelate heavy metals in the bloodstream to help remove them from the body (7).
Licorice has an affinity for the digestive and endocrine systems. It is a remarkable restorative and rejuvenate herb. It’s an adaptogen and strengthening tonic. Through its action on the adrenal glands, it improves resilience to physical and mental stress (6).
Amalaki soothes pitta helping to relieve heat, inflammation and burning throughout the body. It is cleaning and nourishing so helps to purify the blood and build dhatu tissue. Amalaki enhances digestion, absorption and helps relieve debility caused by chronic stress. It is one of the ingredients in the ayurvedic formula Triphala and the main ingredient in Chayawanprash (7).
Bala is a great tonic and rejuvenation. It is one of the best adaptogens and nourishing herbs for vata, for increasing ojas, for enhancing energy, vitality, immunity and resilience to stress. It relieves tension, anxiety, nervous exhaustion and insomnia (7).
Guduchi enhances immunity, longevity and energy. It helps increase resilience to physical and emotional stress, promotes brain function and eases tension. Guduchi improves digestion, absorption and liver function, it promotes good gut microbiome and clears ama from the gut and strotas (7).
Tulsi has an uplifting and strengthening effect on the body and mind as it increases resilience to physical and emotional stress. It also helps to improve appetite, digestion and absorption. Tulsi protects healthy cells from toxicity and clears toxins from the body through its diuretic effect (7).
Shatavari is a nourishing tonic considered the most important sattvic rejuvenation for women. It is cooling and helps to restore balance when the body and mind are overheated or depleted. It helps to balance female hormones. Shatavari has an affinity for the mind and helps promote mental clarity. It is calming, reduces anxiety and increases resilience to stress (7).
Gokshura is a good rasayana for pitta and vata. It promotes clarity, calms the nerves and relives pain. It helps enhance resilience to stress and improves energy. It also helps with the elimination of toxins due to its affinity for the kidneys and urinary system (7).
The most famous ayurvedic jam. It is used as a nutritive tonic and rejuvenate for almost any condition of weakness or as an energy tonic for all three doshas. Its building and nourishing nature helps create strength, energy and vitality. It nourishes and protects ojas. It supports the immune function and body’s natural defences with its high vitamin C content. It stimulates healthy digestion and elimination. Amalaki is the main herb but it also includes long pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ghee, sesame seed oil and many others (7).
Ayurveda and herbal medicine are customised to each individual. It is always best to seek advice from a qualified practitioner who can give correct guidance.
Prioritise good gut health (7)
When feeling tired, low or stressed it is very easy to reach for comfort foods or high energy foods which tend to be highly processed, devoid of nutrients and negatively impact agni (digestive fire). Simple changes can support agni, prevent the formation of ama and greatly assist in recovering from chronic stress, hormone imbalance, or adrenal fatigue.
- Reduce packaged foods, ready-made foods and foods high in white sugar
- Reduce caffeine, nicotine and alcohol
- Favour freshly cooked warm foods such as soups and stews
- Include lots of root vegetables as they are nourishing, grounding and balance vata
- Eat in a calm environment free of electronic gadgets or devices so you fully focus on your food
- Eat slowly and stop when 75% full to leave space for digestion
- Don’t eat until the previous meal has been digested
- Try to eat the largest meal at lunchtime when digestion is strongest
- Include good fats such as ghee, coconut oil, sesame seed oil and olive oil
- Include digestive spices to support agni such as ginger, cumin, fennel, coriander
Modern life is fast paced so the thought of slowing down can feel impossible. We don’t need to say yes to every social event or schedule our time so that is it completely full of work, hobbies, social dates or classes. It is ok (and important) to make time to do absolutely nothing.
Remove any known stressors that you can. For stressors that cannot be removed, see if it is possible to change the way you react to them with mindful practices.
Turn off your mobile phone and go for a walk in nature. Taking time to observe and be present in nature is very calming. The earth and water qualities will calm vata (7).
Reduce intense exercises that increase vata e.g. HIIT, running and choose slower forms of yoga such as yin or hatha, Tai Chi or Qi Gong (3).
Quieten the mind
Pranayama is one of the most powerful and direct practices that calms the mind. Not all breathing exercises are good for everyone as some are over stimulating. Nadi shidhana (alternative nostril breathing) is a powerful and quick breathing technique that also helps to calm the mind and to balance hormones (8).
Meditation helps to balance the mind and emotions, to quieten the endless chatter in the head and clear mental ama. Research on meditation shows that it can increase ojas, enhance our resilience to stress, reduce cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and negative emotions (8).
Vata is balanced through routine. Try to wake at the same time each day, to eat meals at the same time and to be in bed by 10pm. Ensure your daily routine includes time for exercise and self-care practices such as reading, enjoying a relaxing bath and oil massages (7).
Abhyanga (self love massage)
The regular practice of abhyanga calms the nervous system, balances vata, lubricates and rejuvenates the tissues, and promotes healthy circulation throughout the body. It is no coincidence that the Sanskrit word for oil, sneha, also means love. The skin is the largest organ of the body. When we cover the skin in warm oil it calms the nervous system so it is less likely to release stress hormones which in term contribute to hormonal imbalances. Sesame seed oil is good for calming vata while coconut oil is better for soothing pitta (8).
This is a lovely treatment which must be carried out by a qualified practitioner. Warm oil is poured on the forehead over the third eye. This treatment directly targets the central nervous system and pineal and pituitary glands causing a state of deep relaxation (7).
Nasya is the application of herbal oils to the nasal passage. This is the best way to deliver the balancing properties of the herbs and oil to the cerebral cortex. This practice calms the mind and soothes the nasal passage, it relieves accumulated stress and supports mental clarity (7).
Too little sleep or bad quality sleep contributes to fatigue, light headedness, lowered immunity and endocrine disorders. If lack of sleep goes on too long the adrenal glands can become exhausted. Fatigue is our body communicating that it needs rest, not caffeine or sugary food. If we ignore this signal then imbalance arises. Sleep is one of the most nourishing and restorative things so aim to be in bed by 10pm (8).
Panchakarma is a deep and thorough cleanse to remove ama, garvisha and excess doshas. It is very effective at relieving deep seated diseases and for improving physical and mental health. Panchakarma must be carried out by a qualified practitioner (7).
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