Hormones are molecules released by various glands in the body that act as chemical messengers. The best-known hormones are probably insulin, which is released by the pancreas and regulates blood sugar, and the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, released by the ovaries and testicles respectively, which regulate sexual development and function. However, other glands release hormones that affect growth and development, regulate metabolism, control mineral levels, affect sleep/wake cycles and affect the function of the immune system.
Hormonal imbalances (too much or too little of a particular hormone) may occur as a result of genetics. A deficiency in growth hormone, for example, causes very short stature (dwarfism), while too much causes excessive height (gigantism). Hormonal imbalances can also result from lifestyle habits, like poor diet or chronic sleep deprivation. Tumors can cause the glands that produce hormones to malfunction, and traumatic injuries may also affect glands.
The theory behind acupuncture is that it corrects energy imbalances in the body that affect health. Research has shown that there are some specific hormonal imbalances that can be helped with acupuncture. For example, acupuncture has been found effective in treating hot flashes and mood swings in menopause -- and without the side effects of hormone therapy. Acupuncture has also been shown to be helpful for thyroid imbalances.
In addition to acupuncture, one of the mainstays of Chinese medicine, herbal treatments, exercise and dietary counseling can help promote hormonal regulation. Various herbs are used to cleanse or detoxify organs like the liver, while improved dietary habits provide the body's organs and glands with the nutrients needed for optimum function. Exercise promotes circulation and correct posture, which improves the flow of energy, or Qi (“chee”). Research in this area is sometimes limited, and treatment is often based on traditional uses and the practitioner's own experience; treatment must be customized to the individual patient.
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