The hypothalamus is a small but important area in the center of the brain. It plays an important role in hormone production and helps to stimulate many important processes in the body and is located in the brain, between the pituitary gland and thalamus.
When the hypothalamus is not working properly, it can cause problems in the body that lead to a wide range of rare disorders. Maintaining hypothalamic health is vital because of this.
The hypothalamus' main role is to keep the body in homeostasis as much as possible.
Homeostasis means a healthful, balanced bodily state. The body is always trying to achieve this balance. Feelings of hunger, for example, are the brain's way of letting its owner know that they need more nutrients to achieve homeostasis.
The hypothalamus acts as the connector between the endocrine and nervous systems to achieve this. 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 different systems and parts of the body send signals to the brain, they alert the hypothalamus to any unbalanced factors that need addressing. The hypothalamus then responds by releasing the right hormones into the bloodstream to balance the body.
One example of this is the remarkable ability of a human being to maintain an internal temperature of 98.6 °Fahrenheit (ºF).
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.
To maintain homeostasis, the hypothalamus is responsible for creating or controlling many hormones in the body. The hypothalamus works with the pituitary gland, which makes and sends other important hormones around the body.
Together, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland control many of the glands that produce hormones of the body, called the endocrine system. This includes the adrenal cortex, gonads, and thyroid.
Hormones secreted by the hypothalamus include:
- antidiuretic hormone, which increases how much water is absorbed into the blood by the kidneys
- corticotropin-releasing hormone, which helps regulate metabolism and immune response by working with the pituitary gland and adrenal gland to release certain steroids
- gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which instructs the pituitary gland to release more hormones that keep the sexual organs working
- oxytocin, a hormone involved in several processes, including the release of a mother's breast milk, moderating body temperature, and regulating sleep cycles
- prolactin-controlling hormones, which tell the pituitary gland to either start or stop breast milk production in lactating mothers
- thyrotropin-releasing hormone activates the thyroid, which releases the hormones that regulate metabolism, energy levels, and developmental growth
The hypothalamus also directly influences growth hormones. It commands the pituitary gland to either increase or decrease their presence 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 are very 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 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, radiation, and tumors can also cause disease in the hypothalamus.
Some hypothalamic diseases have a genetic link to hypothalamic disease. For instance, Kallman syndrome causes hypothalamic problems in children, most noticeably delayed or absent puberty, accompanied by an impaired sense of smell.
Additional causes of hypothalamic disease can include:
- eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia
- 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 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.
Low adrenal function might produce symptoms such as weakness and dizziness.
Symptoms caused by an overactive thyroid gland include:
As the hypothalamus plays such a vital role in the body, it is very important to keep it healthy. While a person cannot fully avoid genetic factors, they can take dietary steps towards ideal hypothalamus health on a daily basis to reduce the risk of hypothalamic disease.
The hypothalamus controls the appetite, and the foods in the diet influence the hypothalamus. Studies have shown that diets high in saturated fats can alter the way the hypothalamus regulates hunger and energy expenditure.
Sources of saturated fats include lard, meat, and dairy products. Research has also demonstrated that diets high in saturated fats might have an inflammatory effect on the body.
Diets high in polyunsaturated fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, can help to reverse this inflammation. These fats might be a safe alternative to other types of oils and fats. Foods with 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
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.
Why is the hypothalamus so important?
The hypothalamus is the endocrine system’s main switchboard. Most of the body’s critical hormones, which promote growth, metabolism, and normal functioning, are prompted by chemical signals from the hypothalamus.
These hormones, in turn, communicate with the hypothalamus to provide feedback about the body’s functional status. Damage to the hypothalamus can impair one or all of these hormone systems and lead to disastrous consequences, causing the complete shutdown of hormone production.Daniel Murrell, MD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.