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What to Know About the Hypothalamus

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 20, 2021

The hypothalamus is an important part of your brain that controls lots of your basic bodily functions. Some hypothalamus disorders lead to hormone and weight problems.                                       

What Is the Hypothalamus?

The hypothalamus is a gland in your brain that controls your hormone system. It releases hormones to another part of your brain called the pituitary gland, which sends hormones out to your different organs. These include:

Your hormone system operates in a feedback loop that signals the hypothalamus to release more hormones or to stop releasing them. ‌

The hypothalamus controls many different functions. It's important for your sex drive, behaviors, and emotions. Other functions include:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Weight
  • Body temperature
  • Breast milk production
  • Salt and water balance
  • Circadian rhythm, or your sleep-wake cycle
  • Childbirth

Hypothalamus Disorders

Sometimes there are problems with your hypothalamus that can cause diseases. These problems can also affect your pituitary gland. Some disorders lead to not enough or too many hormones. Hypothalamus disorders include:‌

Hypothalamic obesity. Injury to the hypothalamus can cause problems with hunger. People who have hypothalamic obesity can have symptoms like:

  • Fast weight gain
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Uncontrollable appetite
  • Low metabolism‌

Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea. This condition is sometimes called secondary amenorrhea and happens when you stop having your period.‌

When your body doesn’t have enough energy from food, it can cause you to have high cortisol levels. The cortisol dampens your hypothalamus-ovary connection, which means you'll have low amounts of hormones. This affects ovulation and leads to absent periods. ‌

Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea can also be caused by a brain tumor. ‌

Central diabetes insipidus. This type of diabetes is a rare autoimmune disorder where your immune system damages your hypothalamus. Parts of your hypothalamus release a hormone called antidiuretic hormone, or vasopression, which helps your kidneys filter water and keep you hydrated.  

Damage to the hypothalamus leads to a lack antidiuretic hormone and causes frequent peeing and thirst. ‌

Kallman syndrome. Hypothalamus dysfunction can lead to absent or delayed puberty and no sense of smell, as in Kallman syndrome. This is a genetic condition that causes problems with the hypothalamus. It means you won't have enough hormones for sexual development. Symptoms can include:

  • No periods
  • Undescended testicles
  • Small penis
  • No or small breasts
  • Kidney problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Cleft lip
  • Cleft palate‌

Prader-Willi syndrome. This genetic condition is caused by a hypothalamus that doesn’t work properly. This can cause:

  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Poor growth
  • Irresistible urge to eat
  • Small genitals
  • Obesity
  • Behavioral problems‌

Syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone. SIADH causes high antidiuretic hormone levels and low electrolytes. It's usually caused by stroke, infection, or cancer that damages the hypothalamus. Too much of this hormone can cause low sodium levels and lead to:

  • Weakness
  • Throwing up
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Trouble thinking

Causes of Hypothalamus Dysfunction

Hypothalamus dysfunction can happen for a few reasons. Sometimes a genetic condition causes the hypothalamus to not form properly in the womb, or it can be caused by injury and other conditions. ‌

Conditions which can cause hypothalamus dysfunction include:

  • Brain tumor
  • Cancer and cancer treatment, especially in children
  • Head injury
  • Brain surgery 
  • Brain swelling‌

The hypothalamus can be affected by nutrition and exercise. If your body doesn’t have enough energy, it goes into a stress state and makes cortisol, which can dampen activity in your hypothalamus and lead to problems. The stress response can be caused by eating disorders that lead to:

  • Low weight
  • Emotional stress
  • Too much exercise
  • Not eating enough calories‌

High stress, drugs like cocaine, and eating lots of saturated fats which cause inflammation can all lead to hypothalamic dysfunction. The dysfunction can affect many other activities in your body.

Tests for Hypothalamus Disorders

Your doctor will ask for your personal history and order blood and urine tests based on your symptoms. The tests will check for different hormones, electrolytes, and autoimmune proteins. ‌

Doctors might also order imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography scan (CT scan) to look at your brain.  

Treatment for Hypothalamus Disorders

Most hypothalamus disorders are treatable, but the treatment depends on the cause and the disorder.‌

Treatments can include:

  • Surgery or radiation for tumors
  • Hormone medication for hormone problems like hypothyroidism
  • Appetite suppressing medications for overeating problems
  • Dietary plans
  • Obesity medications like metformin

If you have other health problems, like an eating disorder, high stress, or behavioral problems, your doctor might suggest therapy for your mental health or lifestyle counselling for stress and fitness. 

Complications of Hypothalamus Disorders

Hypothalamus disorders can’t be prevented, unless it is related to an eating disorder or poor nutrition. You should seek treatment to avoid complications like:

Your doctor can help you diagnose a hypothalamus disorder. If you have any symptoms or feel unwell, talk to your doctor. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Genetic Rare Diseases Information Center: “Kallmann Syndrome.”

Jimenez, J., De Jesus, O., Hypothalamus Dysfunction, StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

Mayo Clinic: “Hypopituitarism.”

Merck Manuals Professional Edition: “Overview of the Endocrine System.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders “Prader-Willi Syndrome.”

Shahid, Z., Asuka, E., Singh, G., Physiology, Hypothalamus, StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

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