Upstream Healing: Tips for a Healthy Hypothalamus

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What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “the third eye”? You probably start thinking about something related to mysticism, spirituality, psychic abilities, and/or the chakras. The third eye is often connected with the pituitary gland, but would you ever connect it with the hypothalamus? Well, the hypothalamus is deeply buried in the center of your brain—level with the location thought of as the third eye. It also has a very close relationship with the pituitary gland, so the hypothalamus might just be an important element to maintaining a healthy third eye and sixth chakra, as well as a healthy body.

The hypothalamus is in charge of many important processes in the body, including regulating temperature, metabolism, energy balance, the stress response, and circadian rhythms. One way it does this is through acting as the master regulator of the endocrine system. It releases the hormones that signal the pituitary gland, which then send signals further downstream to your other glands. Essentially, it acts as the initial signaler for the adrenal glands, thyroid gland, and the ovaries and testes.

The Role of the Hypothalamus in the Endocrine System

In modern medicine, an emphasis is placed on checking and treating downstream hormones and corresponding glands when dysfunction arises. For example, if you experience fertility issues as a female, then the initial testing and treatment is typically focused on your estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels, as well as the level of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), both of which are released from the pituitary to stimulate the ovaries. However, it is less common that you will be checked for the level of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which is what stimulates the pituitary to release LH and FSH or other markers of hypothalamic health. A similar practice occurs with adrenal or thyroid issues.

However, if your hypothalamus is not working properly, then it will not release the initial hormones that stimulate–or inhibit–the others, so your endocrine system works properly. Any treatment to the other glands, or hormone therapy itself, provides some relief, but it does not fix the underlying issue if the hypothalamus is the root cause.

The Connection Between the Hypothalamus and Obesity

The hypothalamus also plays a key role in energy balance and metabolism. Not only does the hypothalamus control the thyroid hormone, which plays a significant function in regulating metabolism, but it also directly influences appetite through sending and receiving signals involved with insulin, leptin, and ghrelin. Thus, the hypothalamus is part of two of the major signaling pathways involved in energy homeostasis, and thereby dysfunction could lead to obesity and associated disorders.

Although true hypothalamic obesity is rare, dysfunction in the hypothalamus will make it harder to maintain energy balance, since this could lead to issues in the thyroid or appetite control. So, if your focus on preventing or overcoming obesity does not include keeping your hypothalamus happy, then you might not see the results you want.

Dysfunction in the Hypothalamus

There are many things that might interrupt the working of the hypothalamus. Although the primary dysfunction might be something like a tumor, head trauma, or genetic disorders, there are other issues that might lead to chronic dysfunction, even if it does not meet the diagnosable criteria for a disease or disorder. Things that interact with or impact the hypothalamus, and thus have the potential to interrupt normal function, include inflammation, oxidative stress, and varying levels, usually a mild to moderate reduction, of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, as well as certain addictive drugs, including opioids.

One thing to remember is that the hypothalamus is part of a negative feedback loop in regulating many of the glands, so if your downstream hormones are high, then they will tell the hypothalamus not to signal the pituitary to stimulate the glands. This is a normal part of physiology and maintaining balance, but in a state of dysfunction, this negative feedback loop could cause issues.

Luckily, there are some easy things you can do to correct the more common causes of hypothalamic dysfunction and keep this important part of your brain healthy.

Ways to Improve the Health of Your Hypothalamus:

Drink Green Tea: Green tea has been linked with a wide variety of health benefits, thanks in part to its high levels of antioxidants. Another benefit? It helps protect the hypothalamus. One study found that green tea extract mitigated the negative effects of a high-fat diet on the hypothalamus in rats. Specifically, it modulated the inflammation, most likely through inhibiting the TLR/NF-kB pathways, which are two pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body.

Eat the Right Fats: Consuming the wrong food can lead to inflammation in the body, including in the hypothalamus. Despite its bad reputation, fat is good for you–as long as you consume the right balance of fats. You want to avoid trans fats, limit your saturated fats, and focus on mostly consuming omega-3 fatty acids. Unsaturated fats might help revert any inflammation in the hypothalamus associated with obesity according to one experiment. The researchers found that substituting flax seed oil or olive oil in the diet helped reverse inflammation in the hypothalamus, most likely due to the anti-inflammatory properties of these fatty acids, which can reduce and/or inhibit certain cytokine signaling or expression.

Get Moving: Another way to mitigate the damaging inflammation in the hypothalamus? Exercise. One study found regular moderate running on the treadmill led to a reduction in hypothalamic inflammation in mice. To achieve benefits, the mice did not even have to meet the normal threshold for benefits to memory and learning, which has been set at 0.5 kilometers per day. Instead, the mice in the experiment exercised just 0.15 kilometers per day. There was also a reduction in the activation of microglia, which are cells activated by inflammatory cytokines that further release more cytokines.

Just Say No to the SAD Diet: You have probably heard many reasons to avoid the Standard American Diet, or SAD, which is a diet consisting of mainly highly-refined, processed foods with lots of saturated and trans fats. This type of diet is associated with hypothalamic inflammation. Avoid falling into the common trap of eating SAD and prevent the inflammation from occurring. As you reduce the inflammation, you also reduce the associated metabolic dysfunction, which can help you lose weight and reduce your risk for metabolic disease, including insulin resistance.

Cultivate Friendly Bacteria: Another source of inflammation that might interrupt the hypothalamus function? LPS or lipopolysaccharides. These are associated with dysbiosis, or the wrong kind of bacteria in the gut. When the harmful bacteria outgrow the friendly bacteria in the gut, it can lead to systemic inflammation, which has the potential to reach the brain. Focusing on keeping your gut healthy, through probiotics and consuming fiber, will help keep down any inflammation related to LPS.

Consume Antioxidants: Some damage to the hypothalamus might be due to oxidative stress, and consuming foods rich in antioxidants is one way to mitigate this stress. One study looked at a particular flavonoid, quercetin, which is in tea, red wine, and apples. It found that consuming this powerful antioxidant reduced the oxidative damage in the hypothalamus in rats who underwent swimming stress. So, load up your plate with antioxidant-rich foods to protect this important part of the brain. A good rule of thumb is to make a colorful plate with mostly plant foods so you get a good mixture of beneficial antioxidants and other nutrients.

Try Some Chromium: Chromium supplementation has been shown to benefit those with diabetes, but it might also have another benefit: rejuvenating the hypothalamus. Chromium helps with insulin activity, and thus, it helps normalize blood sugar response. Studies have also found that insulin plays a role in brain function, including in the hypothalamus activities. Therefore, increasing the activity of insulin in the brain through chromium supplementation, if one is chromium deficient, might just help keep the hypothalamus healthy and functioning.

Practice Meditation: There are many reasons to practice meditation, and one more to add to the list is its possible benefits to your hypothalamus. Meditation leads to a reduction in the release of norepinephrine, resulting in a reduced amount of corticotropin-releasing hormone. With the subsequent lower amounts of cortisol, there would be less stress, while also ensuring the hypothalamus is not over-stimulated. Meditation also impacts the release of GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters that interact with the hypothalamus. Other mindfulness activities, including yoga, might have a similar effect.

Get a Good Night's Sleep: Getting a good night's sleep is essential for your overall health and wellbeing and helps reduce inflammation and stress. Additionally, it has a direct positive impact on your hypothalamus' health. One study found that sleep deprivation led to changes in the astrocytes in the hypothalamus of rats. Even partial sleep deprivation altered protein expression in these important cells that regulate the electrical impulses in the brain.

Reduce Your Stress Levels: Stress has the potential to disrupt the hypothalamus function, leading to disrupted signaling. One study on sheep found that certain levels of stress led to a disruption of the gene expression for gonadotrophin-releasing hormone and receptors, which ultimately disrupts the secretion of LH and downstream hormones. This might be the result of cortisol's role in the negative feedback loop acting on other hypothalamic pathways. Therefore, find ways to reduce your stress so you do not interfere with the function of your hypothalamus.

Try Acupuncture: Studies have found a connection between the health benefits of acupuncture and its effects on the endocrine pathways connected with the hypothalamus. Acupuncture can decrease cortisol levels and mitigate stress and helps mitigate beta-endorphin secretion. This shift in hormones affects the HPG axis and controls the gonadotrophin-releasing hormone. Certain acupoints have also been shown to mitigate the release of cortico-releasing factor, thereby reducing the release of cortisol, during withdrawal from alcohol in rats.

You do not have to try all of these diet and lifestyle changes to gain benefits to your hypothalamus function. Start with just one that is easy to implement in your life, and then see if you notice any changes. By focusing your attention on this important upstream regulator in your brain, you will find that many downstream elements of your health improve.