What is the hypothalamus and what does it do?

The hypothalamus is a small area located centrally at the base of the brain. It plays a part in many important functions. It aims to keep the body functioning as it should whilst maintaining a balance known as homeostasis, and acts as a link between the endocrine system and the nervous system.

The hypothalamus is made up of three regions: the anterior, middle and posterior regions. Each contains a different cluster of neurons (or nuclei). When triggered, the nuclei send signals for the secretion of certain hormones. Some of these hormones interact with the pituitary gland which is situated below the hypothalamus.

Several of the functions controlled by the hypothalamus include:

  • Sleep cycles (also known as the circadian rhythm)
  • Emotional responses
  • Sexual behaviour
  • Body temperature
  • Appetite
  • Thirst
  • Blood pressure
  • The production of bodily fluids
  • And even childbirth.

What conditions can develop due to problems with the hypothalamus?

  • Hypothalamic dysfunction

When the hypothalamus does not work as it should, it can lead to a number of health conditions including abnormal behaviour, unregulated body temperature and eating disorders.

Due to the way that the hypothalamus and pituitary gland work closely together it can be difficult to distinguish between the two when a patient is presenting with certain symptoms. In these cases the condition may be referred to as hypothalamic-pituitary disorders.

Injuries to the head may lead to problems with the hypothalamus. Brain tumours, radiation from certain treatments and surgery can also potentially impact on the actions of the hypothalamus.

Genetic traits can also be linked to hypothalamic disorders such as Prader-Willi syndrome, where the brain is unable to regulate appetite and Kallman syndrome, where puberty is absent or delayed and is usually combined with a impaired sense of smell. Genetic conditions of the hypothalamus may require lifelong medical treatment.

Symptoms that can be linked to conditions related to the hypothalamus include:

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Insomnia
  • Infertility
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Frequent urination
  • And stunted growth.

Depending on the root cause of the hypothalamus problem, treatment is available. Hormone deficiency can be treated with hormone supplements.

  • Diabetes insipidus

This condition is not related to the more commonly diagnosed diabetes mellitus, however it does cause patients to sometimes present with similar symptoms. Diabetes insipidus occurs when the hypothalamus does not produce enough vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone, which works to maintain the right amount of water in the body.

The lack of vasopressin causes the body to think it is thirsty all the time, thereby causing the patient to drink large amounts of liquid which is ultimately passed out as diluted urine.

Not all cases require treatment, however medication can be used to simulate the actions of vasopressin.

How to keep the hypothalamus healthy

The functions performed by the hypothalamus are vitally important. However, it is difficult to say exactly what actions you can take that will directly benefit this part of the brain.

Therefore you should try and maintain your general health by eating a varied and well balanced diet, exercising regularly and avoiding smoking.

There is some evidence to suggest that diets high in saturated fats can have an impact on hypothalamic performance. This could potentially lead to fluctuations in energy expenditure and appetite. If you currently eat a diet high in this type of fat you may want to look at reducing you intake.

Instead you should look to include brain-boosting foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna; nuts and seeds and leafy vegetables.