Most people don’t know what their endocrine system does until they have a problem with it.
The endocrine system is made up of glands that produce and secrete hormones, chemical substances produced in the body that regulate the activity of cells or organs. These hormones regulate the body's growth, metabolism (the physical and chemical processes of the body) and sexual development and function. If one of these glands is having a problem, it can lead to a whole host of diseases, including diabetes, obesity and hyperthyroidism. Often you don't realize there's an issue until it's already well-developed.
Dr. B. Michelle Schweiger, director of pediatric endocrinology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, recommends attuning yourself to even the slightest changes in your body, which may signal an endocrine issue.
"If you start to notice that you're more tired than usual, feeling more cold or have changes in your appetite, it could be a signal of a thyroid problem," says Schweiger. "For older women, this can mean paying attention to signs for early menopause — changes in your menstrual cycle, hot flashes or mood changes." Men can have hormonal issues as well. Low energy levels, a change in libido or a change in muscle mass can mean that you are not making enough testosterone.
You can also help prevent a problem before it arises by maintaining a varied, healthy diet. "You should get as much of your diet from fruits and vegetables, and less from processed food," says Schweiger. "Eating too much sugar can put you in a state of insulin resistance which can increase your risk for developing diabetes." And it's not just about maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI). "If you're staying thin because you're drinking Gatorade all day, you're still going to increase your diabetes risk because of all the added sugar."
It's also important to get proper rest. "People who have the same calorie intake with the same food items but don't get adequate sleep are at an increased risk for developing obesity and diabetes," says Schweiger. "Even though it may be hard, you need to set sleep as a priority."
For kids, it's especially important to set these habits early. The best way to do that? Get in the groove as a family. "If you want your child to be active, you have to be active together. If you want your child to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, you have to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. You need to build that support network from the inside out."
This is especially important because more people have started to develop Type 2 diabetes at a much younger age. And the prognosis for an adult diagnosed later in life is not the same as a teenager's prognosis.
"Kids that get Type 2 diabetes have a much higher rate of progressing than adults," says Schweiger. "These kids have an increased risk of a significantly reduced lifespan." Once a child develops prediabetes, the damage to the pancreas can be reversed with major lifestyle changes, but once the cells in the pancreas that create insulin get completely destroyed, there's no turning back.
As director of the Step Up program at Cedars-Sinai, Schweiger and her team focus on prevention. They help kids and their families isolate solutions, including eating a proper diet, getting enough physical activity, and practicing positive affirmations on a daily basis.
"The goal is to prevent kids from getting prediabetes in the first place," says Schweiger. In this case, the old adage rings especially true: An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound — or more — of cure.