The human brain is extremely complex, with certain regions responsible for massively important functions.
The hypothalamus is one of those vital parts of the brain, keeping the body in homeostasis.
Where is it Located?
The brain is divided into two hemispheres, which are classified by four lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital.
The hypothalamus is part of the diencephalon, also called the fore brain stem.
It’s a pea-sized section of the brain, making up less than 1% of the weight of the brain.
It’s located near the middle base, sitting below the thalamus.
A stalk connects it to the pituitary gland, which it lies just above.
What Does it Do?
To understand the hypothalamus, we have to first review some other terminology.
- Nervous system
- The network of cells and nerves that deliver messages throughout the body.
The Central Nervous System handles messages between the brain and spinal cord. That includes parasympathetic nerves, which tell your body to start up processes, and sympathetic nerves, which tell your body to relax and let go.
- Endocrine system
- A series of glands that make hormones and distributes hormones to control bodily functions.
The hypothalamus connects those two systems.
When different parts of the body send signals to the brain, the hypothalamus tunes in to address any imbalances and release hormones into the blood stream to regulate them.
For instance, if you’re getting overheated, the hypothalamus will send out hormones to make the body sweat; if you’re out in the cold, the hypothalamus will tell your body to start shivering.
The hormones released are responsible for an astonishing variety of roles, and each of those is monitored through the hypothalamus.
Things like body temperature, thirst, appetite, mood, energy levels, sleep cycles, immune response, sex drive, blood pressure, childbirth, developmental growth, and more are all link back to this one tiny part of the brain.
Within the hypothalamus are two sets of nerve cells that produce those hormones.
One cluster sends the hormones to the posterior (back) portion of the pituitary gland, through that stalk connecting the two sections of the brain.
From there, the hormones go out directly into the bloodstream.
The primary responsibility from this set is to regulate oxytocin, which many people know as the “love hormone” for its effects on mood.
That same hormone plays a major role in childbirth and breastfeeding.
Anti-diuretic hormones also go from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland, making sure the kidneys reabsorb water.
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The other nerve cell set reaches the anterior (back) lobe of the pituitary gland.
A network of blood vessels running through the pituitary stalk connects the two.
This region regulates hormone production that impacts the thyroid gland, adrenal cortex, and gonads.
It also produces dopamine and the growth hormone somatostatin.
There is also a middle area called the tuberal region that helps control appetite and releases a hormone which stimulates.
What Happens if it is Damaged?
Like any part of the body, the hypothalamus can be damaged through traumatic injury or disease.
The repercussions of that can be devastating, leading to hormone imbalances that have a wide range of consequences.
Damage to the hypothalamus could lead to insomnia or problems with thermoregulation.
On a more extreme scale, damage could mean a deficiency in production of hormones that impact childbirth or growth.
If you don’t have enough anti-diuretic hormone, your kidneys could end up damaged as a result.
Tumors can also affect that part of the brain, leading to blurred vision and headaches in addition to hormonal impacts.
In some cases, the hypothalamus may develop a disorder on its own.
In children, early signs might be in abnormal growth patterns or an irregular timeline for puberty. I
n adults, irregular hormone production could point to a problem with the hypothalamus.
That’s often signified through trouble with the thyroid gland, leading to mood swings and anxiety.