Body Mind Health: The Hypothalamus

Hippopotamus? Ah, Hypothalamus!

Anatomy of the Hypothalamus

You know, there are a lot of interesting parts and regions in the brain that we’ll be studying for years to come, and the hypothalamus can be tossed into that group (Don’t toss it too hard!). The hypothalamus plays a huge role in the following areas1:

Hunger
Mood and feelings
Sexual drive
Sleep
Temperature
Thirst
The releasing of hormones

It is located just around the center of the brain, and is surrounded by various glands. The Hypothalamus weighs around 7 grams, and is located beneath the thalamus which is responsible for functions such as pain, temperature, and crude touch. The hypothalamus has been considered a major link between the mind and the body, providing a route for emotions to express themselves through the body.

Functions of the Hypothalamus

The Hypothalamus plays a major role in secreting releasing hormones, which are responsible for, as you may have guessed, releasing hormones. It doesn’t do it directly, but rather signals different glands, primarily the pituitary gland which then releases the hormone when it is needed.  You can view it as the general who gives the order to fired the cannon ball. Some of the hormones releases by the hypothalamus include:

  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone – Affects adrenal glands and cortisol
  • Growth hormone-releasing hormone and Growth hormone-inhibiting hormone
  • Prolactin releasing hormone – plays a role in breast milk secretion and menstruation

The hypothalamus also plays a role keeping you awake during the day, as clinical data suggests it plays a role in sleepiness disorders2. Its neurons (nerve cells) connect with the autonomic centers for the functions of sweating and shivering. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we attribute the control of pores and temperature to what we call wei qi, or your outside defense qi (pronounced “Chee”). This type of qi also plays a role in immunity as well, protecting you from outside infectious agents.

Mind Body Health and the Hypothalamus

Hypothalamus affects Mind Body Health In stressful situations the hypothalamus serves an important function. Emotional memory from the limbic system (which stores good and bad feelings of past memories) can communicate and send nerve impulses to the hypothalamus.  Thus, this leads to increase stimulation of the pituitary gland and an increase in hormones secreted into the body. This is an interesting link between nerve impulses and hormones, because it tells us that our feelings and thoughts can really affect how our body operates.  The hypothalamus can take over your pituitary gland and affect ever entire cell in your body if put into a situation where your survival is in danger3!

Acupuncture has been show to promote positive interaction in the hypothalamus, being able to to increase or decrease signal stimulation5. It is interesting that acupuncture can affect the hypothalamus in such a way to balance because acupuncture naturally helps to bring the body to a state of relaxation and homeostasis (stability).

Meditation has also been shown to have a positive impact on factors such as cortisol secretion and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system, which is the connection between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and your adrenal system which is responsible for adrenaline.

The hypothalamus is a fascinating area of the brain that plays a vital role in our lives. Holistic medicine entails encompasses healing all bodily and mental systems in order to achieve optimal wellness. Please feel free to read the first part of the Body Mind Health series on the pineal gland, and stay tuned for more posts on the journey into the mind and body.

Sources and References
1. Medline Plus Medicine. 2011. Hypothalamus.  Retrieved March 30th, 2012 from Medline Plus. Retrieved March 30, 2012 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002380.htm
2, 3.  Thibodeau, G. Anatomy and Physiology, Mosby Inc, 2003
4. Brand S, Holsboer-Trachsler E, Naranjo JR, Schmidt S. Influence of Mindfulness Practice on Cortisol and Sleep in Long-Term and Short-Term Meditators. Neuropsychobiology. 2012 Feb 24;65(3):109-118
5. Medline Plus. Retrieved March 30, 2012 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002380.htm