The Politics of Hormones

For the last two days every human being and animal I’ve crossed paths with has pissed me off.  And I can’t control it.  It was only when my partner gingerly pointed out one day that I seem to want to kill myself (or everyone else) on the same 3 days every month, that I realised that it was overwhelmingly brought on by my monthly hormone cycle.

Double-flowered carnationsThis morning I attempted to make myself feel better by having a healthy breakfast, buying some carnations and painting each fingernail a different colour of the rainbow.  It turns out chucking a hissy fit and have a rage-fueled cleaning spree did the trick instead.  As I was attempting to stuff these beautiful carnations into a ridiculously narrow vase, one of the flower heads popped off and I quickly realised this vase just wasn’t going to work and tension began to build.  I pulled the stems out and briefly glanced around the room only to be struck by the vision capabilities of a vampire, zeroing in on thousands of grotty specs of dust.  The kitchen was a pigsty.  The tension burst.  I screamed and threw the flowers stems across the room like a two year old.  Thankfully no one else was there to witness it.

And there you have it – human hormones in action.  Have too little of one and you become depressed, too much of another and you’re angry.  These regulatory substances that our own bodies produce, sometimes in cycles, sometimes in response to medications or environment, are created and then transported by our blood to stimulate specific cells or tissues into action.  Basically, they’re little chemical messengers that help to keep everything in balance.  Testosterone, Estrogen, Insulin, Oxytocin and even Dopamine as a peripheral hormone – over 50 of them in total.

But as anyone who has attempted to live a balanced life knows…balance is not exactly simple, it’s a constant juggling act.  So here’s my poor female  body, prepping itself to make babies every month while the rest of me has to catch up and balance all its internal chemicals just right to keep me sane.  I’m lucky it can at least do that.

Many of us would like to think we have absolute final control over our actions and disposition, but our predisposition toward certain behaviours or traits are governed by these chemical compounds which are originally a product of genetics or epigenetics, but then subject to change based on our own epigenome and our environment.  For instance, what we choose to eat or not to eat (given foods are also chemicals), will also effect the chemical composition of our guts and our bodies.  Here’s some examples of the power of hormones:

  • Pre-op Female Transexuals take more Estrogen to stimulate breast formation, heightening of voice and change of fat distribution across the body although this cannot change the effects of the androgens (testosterone and others) on the shape of the skeleton. Visa versa for Pre-op Male Transexuals.
  • Men who take more anabolic steroids like testosterone to make bones stronger and muscles bigger can have the side effect of high blood pressure, sharp aggressive moods, increase in body heat and reduced sperm count.Chemical structure of oxytocin.
  • Oxytocin has different effects in men verses women.  In men it improves the ability to identify competitive relationships whereas in women it facilitates the ability to identify kinship.  It is released by the body in high doses during pregnancy and around childbirth in order to ensure proper boding between the mother and the child and it is also released during sex, which is why women tend to interpret sex as having more meaning than males do, because while it can also be released in men – the presence of testosterone interferes with its release.
Cover of "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming...

Cover via Amazon

I have been reading Emotional Awareness which is a book that covers a 3 week conversation between the Dalai Lama and scientist Paul Eckman (who is behind vast tomes of research on human emotion and, in particular, how it is expressed in minute facial expressions.  His work formed the basis of the TV show “Lie to Me”). In the book they talk about the difference between moods and emotions – where a mood is generally not tied to a specific event or circumstance but has a continuous emotional effect, whereas an emotional episode is much more able to be linked to a trigger event.  In some ways, moods trigger emotional episodes that reflect the mood itself, while emotional episodes are often in response to some sort of external trigger.

When I look at this in the context of hormones, I can see how hormones would often be the precipitants of moods, which would then trigger a variety of emotional responses.  The stronger the hormone and stronger the mood, the stronger the emotional response, and of course like all learned human behaviour, these patterns would continue to strengthen over time if performed again and again and can be how people slip into ongoing depression or aggression.

All this also got me thinking about how religion deals with hormones and their effect on humans.  Two particular instances I can think of relate specifically to women:

  1. In Sharia (Islamic) law, two women must bear witness to a crime in order to be heard in court.  This is stated to be due to the emotional nature of women, although on further research I found the story was related directly to Mohammad wanting to save one of his wives from being stoned to death by being caught all one with another man by a woman.  It seemed he often made up rules to suit his worldly purposes.
  2. In Jewish law, a man cannot touch a woman who is in the bleeding section of her monthly cycle.

Interestingly, there seems to be no similar law governing the display of aggression in men which is similarly a hormone fueled disposition.  Perhaps from an evolutionary perspective this is because the male aggression hormone was highly useful during times of empire expansion and the need to protect land, while the female hormal response in its monthly cycle had no broader benefit (from the patriarchs perspective).

Because for the majority of history, both East and West have lived in patriarchal societies, the best way to look at hormones being a determinant of military and political outcomes is through a male sex hormone like Testosterone.  As an example, research in 1992 showed there was no difference in Testosterone levels between black and white boys during adolescence, but in adulthood, black male testosterone levels were much higher which then directly links to other statistics we see on the number of incarcerations of black verses white males.  Of course there are so many other factors involved including race related discrimination and levels of education…etc but hormones remain a factor.  For instance in contrast, there was significant racism in Western countries toward those of Chinese descent and yet their incarceration rate remains lower.  So if we widen out that thinking from groups to countries, we see the possibilities for testosterone levels in any particular age generation to change and potentially fuel the ability for one clan (or country) to change military outcomes, or to resort to military resolutions over negotiation.  Environmental factors also come into play with research showing in adult male rats that experience short term starvation can significantly reduce testosterone levels.

So here we have a mix of chemicals in our bodies which have the potential to guide us to achieve great good or great destruction and yet we have only scratched the surface in controlling their effects through various hormone replacement therapies that often have many unwanted side-effects of their own.

Fitbit: Wireless Personal Trainer

Fitbit: Wireless Personal Trainer (Photo credit: mrcd@sbcglobal.net)

Interestingly I recently did an interview with Jonathan Teo as part of a Fireside chat run by our meetup group Lean Startup Melbourne.  He led initial investor rounds into Twitter and Instagram and more recently Snapchat and is one of the key people in the tech industry who has been able to predict new technology trends.  One of the key trends being talked about in the tech industry at the moment is wearable tech (being able to monitor body functions insitu) – which is in part being quickly moved forward and expanded by breakthroughs in nanotechnology and size/power of computer chips.

At our last meetup, one of the speakers was from Lab on a Chip in Melbourne who talked about the real possibility in the near future of capabilities being produced that would enable the immediate mapping of genomes and epigenetic markers and then the smart releasing of medications or hormones through a patch (just like a smoking patch…but way smarter!).
Here’s hoping there’s a nanotech-hormone-patch for PMS before I smash a plate….or five.

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