If I said you have a nice steroid hormone, would you hold it against me?
Thanks to Groucho Marx for the basis of that wisecrack, but as silly as it sounds, it says something about our understanding of steroids and hormones. We’ve heard a lot about them over the years, but the media coverage is all scandal and no information.
So Just What Is a Steroid?
As it turns out, a steroid is a molecule with seventeen carbon atoms in a four-ring arrangement. Each ring shares two atoms with its neighbor, but the last ring is not quite a full ring. The word “hormone” implies something about function rather than form, however. A hormone alters the activity or mass of another gland or organ. Hormones can be made of amino acids or proteins, but most of the best-known hormones are made of steroids.
The D vitamins are steroids, although ultraviolet radiation alters the ring structure. That’s why exposure to sunlight is essential for your body’s production of vitamin D. Cholesterol is yet another steroid. Cholesterol belongs to the sub-category called sterols because it has an attached atom of alcohol. It makes up part of the structure of cell membranes, so take care about wishing cholesterol would just go away.
When we think of steroids and hormones, we often think of anabolics, which are tissue-building chemicals (anabolism is the part of metabolism that builds tissues while catabolism involves breakdown).
The best-known anabolic is not a steroid, though. Human growth hormone (HGH) is a protein hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. As we’ve all heard, inappropriate use of HGH can damage the heart and accelerate tumor growth.
One of the most important anabolic steroids is testosterone, an androgen. Androgens are chemicals that impart masculine features. Male bodies produce androgens, but females produce most androgens too, just in smaller amounts than men do. Here’s a delicious irony. The conversion of cholesterol to testosterone is a five-stage process, one of which is progesterone, a hormone often thought of as exclusively female.
Estradiol, perhaps the most important of the estrogens, is also a steroid hormone; although, it lacks the anabolic impact of testosterone. Estradiol aids in the formation of the lining of reproductive organs, and may also have a part in the release of a hormone that triggers ovulation. Sales of estrogen-bearing hormone replacements for women plunged several years ago after studies indicated a link between hormone replacement and heart disease. Nonetheless, estrogens relieve hot flashes and reduce the risk of osteoporosis in menopausal women. In another delicious irony, one of the steps in estradiol production is – you guessed it – testosterone.
Stop Stressing and Calm Your Cortisol
The chief stress-response hormone is cortisol, which is also a steroid. Cortisol has several functions, principally suppression of inflammation. Though inflammation represents a crucial response to injury, it can inflict permanent damage if left unchecked.
Synthetic versions of cortisol have provided a boon to human health, including hydrocortisone creams that relieve the itch of poison ivy. The heavy-duty versions are vital for some surgical procedures, such as coronary artery bypass, which triggers potentially lethal inflammation. Without these synthetic cortisols, many of these procedures would prove fatal or would not be possible.
Steroid, Hormones, and Biotechnology – Oh My
We’re told the 21st Century is the biotechnology century, so steroids and hormones will increase in common use. These little workhorses build cells, bodies, and babies, but an imbalance can prove catastrophic. As more steroids, hormones, and steroid hormones appear in our medicine cabinets, we need to understand what they’re all about.
And if you meet someone who appears as though their steroid hormones might be different from yours, don’t hold it against them.
About the author: Mark McCarty comes to us as a writer with more than a decade’s experience covering a wide range of topics, including endocrine conditions, neurosurgery, cardiology and cancer. He writes extensively on regulatory and policy aspects of medical devices and pharmaceuticals for a variety of clients along with patent law and healthcare policy topics as well. Want to chat with Mark about using his fresh, original content? Email him at mrk.mccarty [at] gmail [dot] com.