The hypothalamus is a small area in the center of the brain. It helps produce hormones that regulate heart rate, body temperature, hunger, and the sleep-wake cycle.

When the hypothalamus is not working properly, it can cause problems in the body that lead to a wide range of rare disorders.

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The hypothalamus’ main role is to keep the body in homeostasis as much as possible. Homeostasis means a healthy and balanced internal state. The body is always trying to achieve this balance.

The hypothalamus works between the endocrine and nervous systems. The endocrine system is a network of hormone-producing glands and organs that help regulate bodily functions.

As different systems and parts of the body send signals to the brain, they can alert the hypothalamus to any unbalanced factors that need addressing. The hypothalamus responds by stimulating relevant endocrine activity to address this balance.

For example, if the hypothalamus receives a signal that the internal temperature is too high, 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.

It also plays a role in:

To maintain homeostasis, the hypothalamus works with the pituitary gland to control hormone production.

This includes the thyroid and parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries (in females), and testis (in males). The endocrine system is responsible for maintaining blood pressure, heart rate, production of digestive enzymes, and maintaining balanced body fluids.

Interaction with the pituitary gland

In conjunction with the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus secretes the following hormones:

  • Antidiuretic hormone (ADH): This hormone helps to regulate the amount of water in the body. This helps with blood pressure control.
  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH): This is a hormone that helps regulate metabolism and immune response by working with the pituitary gland and adrenal gland to release certain steroids, particularly in response to stress.
  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone: This causes the pituitary gland to release hormones that keep the sexual organs for both men and women working properly.
  • Oxytocin: This hormone is involved in several processes. Mainly, it facilitates childbirth and the release of a mother’s breast milk.
  • Prolactin-controlling hormones: These are hormones such as dopamine and estrogen that tell the pituitary gland to either start or stop breast milk production in lactating mothers.
  • Thyrotropin-releasing hormone: This hormone is the master regulator of the thyroid. The thyroid regulates metabolism, energy levels, and developmental growth.

The hypothalamus also directly influences growth hormones. It commands the pituitary gland to either increase or decrease levels in the body, which is essential for both growing children and fully developed adults.

A hypothalamic disease is any disorder that prevents the hypothalamus from functioning correctly. These diseases can be hard to pinpoint and diagnose because the hypothalamus has a wide range of roles in the endocrine system.

The hypothalamus also serves the vital purpose of signaling that the pituitary gland should release hormones to the rest of the endocrine system. As it is difficult for doctors to diagnose a specific, incorrectly functioning gland, these disorders are often called hypothalamic-pituitary disorders.

In these cases, there are some hormone tests that doctors might order to get to the root of the disorder.

Some hypothalamic diseases have a genetic link. For instance, the hereditary condition Kallman syndrome causes hypothalamic problems in children. This disorder presents most noticeably as delayed or absent puberty, accompanied by an impaired sense of smell.

Hypothalamus problems also appear to have a genetic link in Prader-Willi Syndrome. This is a condition in which a missing chromosome leads to short stature and hypothalamic dysfunction.

Physical damage to the hypothalamus

One of the most common causes of hypothalamic dysfunction is traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in young adults.

There appears to be a high prevalence of hypopituitarism following a TBI. This could be secondary to damage to the hypothalamus or pituitary gland directly. It is also believed that post-TBI neuroinflammation can cause the pituitary gland to dysfunction. Or, it could be caused by an insufficient supply of hypothalamic-releasing hormones.

Sheehan syndrome is another condition that can lead to hypopituitarism. This condition involves necrosis of the pituitary gland due to excessive blood loss in childbirth.

Because this disorder can easily be treated with hormone replacement therapy, people should be closely monitored for up to a year after a TBI for early detection and treatment of hypothalamic or pituitary dysfunction.

Additional causes of hypothalamic dysfunction may include:

Symptoms of hypothalamus disorders vary depending on what hormones are in short supply.

Children might show signs of abnormal growth and abnormal puberty. Adults might show symptoms 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. Tumor symptoms might include visual disturbances, seizures, or headaches.

If the sex hormones are affected, symptoms might present as erectile dysfunction or decreased libido. Low adrenal function might produce symptoms such as weakness and dizziness.

Symptoms caused by an overactive thyroid gland may include:

The hypothalamus controls appetite, and foods in the diet influence the hypothalamus. Research shows that diets high in saturated fats and sugars can alter the way the hypothalamus regulates hunger and energy expenditure, leading to hypothalamic dysfunction. Sources of saturated fats include lard, meat, and dairy products.

Diets high in polyunsaturated fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, can help to control inflammation. These fats might be a safe alternative to other types of oils and fats. Foods with high omega-3 fatty acids include fish, walnuts, flax seeds, and leafy green vegetables.

The hypothalamus is in a small area in the brain’s center. It is essential in many body functions, from growth and development to mood, heart health, and childbirth.

There is an important relationship between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, and dysfunction of one will lead to dysfunction of the other. Together, with other essential glands, they make up the body’s vital endocrine system.

When the hypothalamus is not functioning correctly, it can affect essential moving parts of the human organism. Dysfunction can be the result of disease or trauma.