Moody? Hungry? Hangry? Turned on? Turned off? All those states of being and so many more are all controlled by one teeny tiny area at the base of your brain. Meet your hypothalamus.
Located between the pituitary gland and thalamus, the hypothalamus has a (metaphorical) hand in a long list of bodily functions, but it's overarching responsibility is to keep the body in a balanced state, otherwise known as homeostasis. Your body is always searching for a way back to homeostasis, and it lets you know when things are out of whack. Hunger pangs for example are your body's way of telling you you're low on nutrients and need to refuel in order to reclaim homeostasis. Those little signals come courtesy of your hypothalamus.
"It's responsible for running the show when it comes to the autonomic nervous system," says New York City-based family nurse practitioner, herbalist, and life coach, Victoria Albina, FNP-c, MPH. "And it coordinates signals to the pituitary. Therefore, it controls our thirst, temperature regulation, it plays a part in hunger, it has a lot to do with sleep, energy regulation, mood, and reproduction function."
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the key involuntary functions of your body, meaning all the things you don't have to think about controlling, but are crucial to your survival. Everything from accelerating your heart rate and raising your blood pressure when necessary (the "sympathetic nervous system") to slowing your heart rate and reving up intestinal activity when necessary (the "parasympathetic nervous system").
The pituitary gland is often called the "master gland" because it controls other hormonal glands like the thyroid, adrenals, ovaries and testicles. The hypothalamus serves as a communication center for the pituitary, sending messages to it in the form of hormones. These hormonal messages then influence the production and release of other hormones from the pituitary which affect other glands and organs in the body.
So yeah, the hypothalamus has a lot to do. Here's a full rundown of some of the main body functions a healthy hypothalamus keeps under control:
- body temperature
- sex drive
- heart rate
- release of hormones, especially those from the pituitary
"The hypothalamus talks to the pituitary and the pituitary then sends signals through complex systems to the thyroid, through another channel to the ovaries, and through another channel to the adrenals," Albina says. "When there's a problem in communication between the hypothalamus and the pituitary, there can be trouble downstream."
If you've ever heard of the alternative medicine phrase, "adrenal fatigue," describing a collection of symptoms said to be tied to the adrenals, this is the theoretical root. Albina says a communication mishap between the hypothalamus and pituitary can also lead to hormone imbalances involving the reproductive organs, as well as thyroid issues, and more. "And when that hypothalamic-pituitary connection isn't functioning optimally, you can be depressed and anxious and you can have metabolic management issues," she says. "Fatigue is super common as well."
Because the hypothalamus wears so many hats as an endocrine influencer, figuring out what's wrong with it when dysfunction arises can be challenging. But there are a few issues that can contribute to the development of hypothalamic dysfunction, including genetic causes; injury resulting from trauma, surgery, or radiation; infection; or inflammation or tumors around the hypothalamus. Eating disorders, malnutrition, and excessive bleeding can also all be contributors. A few symptoms that something is off with the hypothalamus include:
- increased hunger
- rapid weight gain
- slow heart rate
- severe thirst
- frequent urination
- low body temperature
- lack of sex drive
- mood swings
While severe hypothalamic dysfunction can play a role in serious conditions like diabetes insipidus (in which the kidneys can remove too much water) and Prader-Willi syndrome (an inherited disorder that causes a constant urge to eat), an underfunctioning hypothalamus can contribute to everyday issues around mood, appetite, sex drive and more. For that reason, integrative practitioners like Albina often recommend holistic approaches to supporting the hypothalamus and all its hormone-influencing power.
"When there's an imbalance in the signaling pathways of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis, it can lead to reduced stress tolerance, a feeling of being stressed and anxious, and feeling 'tired but wired' in the evenings is common," she says. "With my patients, I often address that through breathwork meditation or any kind of stress reduction, sleep hygiene, and adaptogens — rhodiola in the morning, ashwagandha at night, and tulsi throughout the day are three super simple things that work for most people."
Some do-it-yourself ways to support a healthy hypothalamus include eating a balanced diet, maintaining a solid sleep schedule and incorporating physical activity into your life.