Hormones as Medicine
“DENVER Woman Gives Birth to Sextuplets.” So read a front-page headline of the New York Times, September 18, 1973. The article featured pictures of the father and mother, both smiling. What accounted for their having these sextuplets? Hormone injections!
The mother had been unable to conceive after giving birth to a son four years ago. Her doctor experimented with various hormones, and finally the injections of one derived from the urine of women who had passed their menopause caused the woman to conceive again. However, a side effect of the injections caused her weight to jump from 130 to 196 pounds just before the premature birth of the sextuplets.
Trying to help women who have been unable to conceive to become pregnant is just one of the many uses to which physicians put hormones today. And this is not at all surprising when we learn that all biological processes of the body are at least in part under hormonal control. Since you, or a relative or close friend, might be urged to accept hormones under medical supervision, it would be good to know something about them. In that way you will be in a better position to understand the factors involved and to make a wise decision.
What Are They?
Human hormones are chemicals naturally secreted by your body. In proper balance they exert important effects on the finely tuned human organism. For example, hormones play a particularly vital role in helping the body to adjust to changes in its environment, which adjustment is often necessary for survival. Thus the body temperature of 98.6° F. must be held with but slight variations, and yet the temperature outside may vary as much as from 90 degrees below zero to 130 degrees above. Then again, strenuous labor creates so much heat that if the body did not have the means for cooling itself our muscles would literally cook. This sustaining of the body’s internal balance in temperature despite changes in its environment is termed “homeostasis.”
Among the various activities of the body that make homeostasis possible are those of the hormones, literally meaning “exciters” or “arousers.” They are extremely powerful tiny bits of either simple or compound substances that accomplish their mission in quantities so small as to defy imagination. Just how small? Some hormone particles are so small that it would take three thousand million (3,000,000,000) of them to equal one ounce!
That hormones are produced by eight kinds of ductless glands in the human body is widely known. These are the pituitary, the thyroid, the parathyroids, the adrenals, the thymus, the pineal, the islands of Langerhans and the gonads or sex glands. But not so well known is the fact that many other organs and parts of the body also produce hormones. Thus the hypothalamus, a part of the brain, releases several hormones that trigger the release of hormones in the pituitary and other ductless glands, and also influences a wide variety of metabolic processes. The small intestines, the kidneys and especially the placenta of pregnant women likewise release hormones.
For the various organs of the body to function harmoniously they must be in touch with one another. A main means for transmitting messages from one organ to another is the nervous system. The other is the hormonal system. The nerves might be said to work like a telephone. It requires a hookup at each end and a line along which the message or impulse travels, and this is also true of nerves. Thus in the skin there are tiny receptors that pick up such sensations as heat, cold and pain and carry them to the brain.
On the other hand, hormones have been likened to radio. A radio station sends out its messages in all directions and it takes a receiver able to tune in on its wavelength and pick up the messages. So too with hormonal influences. The producing glands or organs send them out to all the cells of the body by means of the blood, but they affect only certain cells that have specific receptors for particular hormones. Recently, research indicates that the genes play a vital role in this response.
Another interesting characteristic of the way hormones work is the feedback principle. A gland will keep pouring its hormone into the blood until its target organ, which has the receptors for that particular hormone, has received a sufficient amount. Then that target organ will signal back to the gland to stop emitting its hormone for the time being.
Therapeutic Use of Hormones
The study and application of hormones is termed “endocrinology.” It is so called because it deals with the hormone products of the endocrine or ductless glands. In particular, today there is much interest in the therapeutic or healing use of hormones. Such hormones may be either natural or synthetic. The glands of cattle, hogs and sheep are the main sources of natural hormones. Other natural sources of certain hormones are the urine of pregnant mares and the Mexican yam or sweet potato. Synthetic hormones are produced from synthetic amino acids, from sodium salts and from other inorganic substances.
Do you know what is probably the most widespread use of hormones? It is in the birth-control pill, which contains two sex hormones, progestin (progesterone) and estrogen. The most commonly used oral contraceptives, the combination pill and the sequential pill, are thought to prevent conception by suppressing ovulation—a woman consistently using them does not get pregnant because she does not release eggs that might become fertilized.a But even on this authorities disagree, for, as Natural History for August-September 1972 pointed out: “At the present time more is known of the reproductive functioning of the sow, for example, than of women.”
The hormones in these pills, though small in quantity, are powerful. So it is not surprising that a limited number of women taking them experience unpleasant side effects, such as temporary nausea and fluid retention. And other more serious side effects, such as blood-clot problems and high blood pressure, have been implicated. However, this is understandable, for a potential risk is associated with taking any drug preparation, even a thing as common as aspirin or penicillin. Whether the risk involved seems to be justified is something for each individual to decide.
And what is quite likely the next most widely used hormone? Insulin, prescribed by many physicians for patients suffering from diabetes. It is obtained from the pancreases of oxen, sheep and hogs, the pancreases containing the tiny “islands of Langerhans” that produce insulin. There was a time when it was thought that insulin solved all the diabetic’s problems. But now it is appreciated that equally important, if not more so, are the right kind of diet and physical exercise.
Are you a woman plagued with premenstrual tension or are you going through that difficult phase of womanhood known as the menopause? If so, it may be that your physician will prescribe hormones for your condition. The female hormone estrogen is, in particular, recommended by doctors. And in recent years it has been found that very small amounts of the male hormone androgen can also be helpful. However, there is recognition on the part of some in the medical profession that hormones can cause malignancy if a woman happens to be sensitive to such hormones. For this reason careful supervision of such treatment is advisable if this type of hormone treatment seems necessary.
Mention has been made of certain hormones used to keep women from conceiving. Others can and are being used to help women to bear children in cases in which they have been aborting their fetuses. And there are hormones from other humans that may help those who have been unable to conceive to become pregnant, as in the case of the Denver woman previously referred to. However, some women might object on principle to accepting a hormone derived from another human.
Among the more commonly known hormones is DES. It was being used on a wide scale to spur growth in farm animals. But when it was found that the residues of this hormone in meat caused cancer in experimental animals, it was banned by the United States Department of Agriculture.
However, now it has been released by the U.S. Drug Administration as an emergency “morning after” pill, as in treating rape victims. If pregnancy has occurred, it will prevent implantation of the fertilized ovum when taken within seventy-two hours after intercourse. However, The National Observer focused on an important ethical aspect of the matter, stating: “DES does not prevent pregnancy. Its popular designation as a contraceptive is misleading. DES causes abortion. . . . Just how effective it is constitutes part of the current debate over the validity of its use.” And another factor is that daughters born to women taking this synthetic hormone, upon their reaching adulthood, have been reported as having a higher than average risk of genital cancer. For this reason warnings have been issued as to its use.
Do you suffer from hay fever or some kindred illness? If so, it may be that your physician will prescribe cortisone, which in its natural state is produced by the adrenal glands. Some years ago cortisone was heralded as a “wonder” or “miracle” drug. Especially were high hopes held out for it in the treatment of arthritis. However, now it is recognized as being just one aspect of the treatment of arthritis, and there are some who hold that simple aspirin is just as effective, has fewer side effects and costs a great deal less.
A certain hormone called oxytocin contracts a mother’s uterus, helping her to give birth to her child and initiates the flow of milk in her breasts. It is now being produced synthetically, and some obstetricians are using it to induce labor so that mothers can have their babies on demand, anytime they want instead of having to wait until their bodies themselves initiate labor. But is that wise? There are authorities, such as Dr. E. De Costa, of the Northwestern University Medical School, who disapprove of resorting to induced labor merely as a matter of convenience; they contend that only when the life of the mother or the child is involved should it be employed.
And hormones are used medically to treat other illnesses or disorders. For instance, with diabetes insipidus the kidneys produce large quantities of water, causing the patient to suffer from intense thirst; often a hormone is used to treat this condition. And myxedema and simple goiter involve lack of the thyroid hormone; so the hormone obtained from the thyroid glands of hogs may be administered. Of course, in view of the potency of these and other hormones, it is recognized that their use should be carefully supervised by competent medical personnel.
From the foregoing it can be seen that hormones are more and more being administered to make up for a deficiency of natural hormones in a patient’s body. And hormone therapy is being increasingly used by doctors as a means to cope with special illnesses or to produce certain physical effects. But since hormones are so potent and their potential effects so numerous, they should not be taken casually or without due consideration to possible alternative treatments. And especially should the Christian give attention to the moral aspects that may be involved in certain cases. Such a thoughtful approach to hormones as medicine will put you in position to take a balanced view of their use.
a A newly developed hormone pill is beginning to be used. It consists solely of a minute dosage of progesterone, and thus has been dubbed the “minipill.” Regarding it, Newsweek of January 15, 1973, reported: “The minipill is believed to confine its action to the lining of the uterus itself; it does not prevent ovulation, but apparently makes the uterine lining unsuitable for implantation of the fertilized egg,” which means that it evidently allows conception to occur. Thus, for Christians there is a definite moral aspect to consider, should a physician recommend the “minipill.”