What Are Hypothalamus Disorders?

Healthy vs. Abnormal Hypothalamus Functioning

The hypothalamus is a small area located in your brain. It makes hormones that control a variety of body functions, such as your mood and hunger. The main purpose of the hypothalamus is to maintain the body at a constant or balanced level. 

This article will explain more about the hypothalamus and common disorders associated with this portion of the brain. 

Brain scan depicting the hypothalamus

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Anatomy of the Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is an important part of the brain because it regulates many functions. Understanding its anatomy can help you learn more about its purpose.

Structure 

The hypothalamus is very small—about the size of an almond. It has the shape of a pine cone. Inside the hypothalamus, you will find different types of neurons (specialized brain cells) that can send messages to other cells.

The hypothalamus is divided into these three regions:

  • Anterior
  • Middle
  • Posterior

Location 

The hypothalamus is in the center of your brain. It is located above the pituitary gland and below the thalamus. The hypothalamus is attached to the pituitary gland by a small stalk.

Function of the Hypothalamus

The function of the hypothalamus is to help regulate your body's processes and to release hormones. The hormones it makes travel to the anterior pituitary through the blood. 

The hypothalamus can make the following hormones:

  • Dopamine: A brain chemical that influences mood and feelings of reward and motivation
  • Somatostatin: Regulates the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and other important bodily functions
  • Oxytocin: Fosters positive feelings of connection and well-being, sometimes called the love hormone
  • Vasopressin: An antidiuretic hormone involved in regulating fluid levels in the body
  • Growth hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH): Stimulates the release of growth hormone
  • Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH): Regulates the release of an important thyroid hormone.
  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH): Stimulates the production of testosterone
  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH): Helps drive the body's stress response

Some of the functions of the hypothalamus include regulating:

  • Hunger and appetite 
  • Body temperature
  • Mood
  • Behavior
  • Memory
  • Sleep
  • Hormone release
  • Sex drive
  • Childbirth 
  • Thirst
  • Heart rate
  • Balance of salt and water 
  • Growth 

Associated Conditions That Impact the Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus regulates many body functions, so many types of disorders can occur if the hypothalamus dysfunctions, which some diseases can cause. Common problems that affect the hypothalamus include:

  • Genetic disorders
  • Birth defects
  • Infections
  • Inflammation 
  • Injuries 
  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Tumors
  • Immune system diseases 
  • Traumatic brain injuries 
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Nutritional problems
  • Blood vessel conditions in the brain, such as an aneurysm

Appetite

When an injury or inflammation affects the hypothalamus, it may change your appetite. One type of disorder is called hypothalamic obesity, and it has the following symptoms: 

  • Weight gain that happens quickly 
  • Out of control appetite
  • Not being able to feel full 
  • Low metabolism
  • Daytime sleepiness 

Other disorders that affect the hypothalamus and your appetite include:

  • Diabetes insipidus: A condition that causes your kidneys to take out too much water and leads to excessive thirst and urination 
  • Hypopituitarism: A condition that leads to the loss of appetite and weight
  • Prader-Willi syndrome: A genetic disorder that creates a constant urge to eat

Adrenal

When the hypothalamus is not functioning properly because of a disorder, the adrenal system may also be affected, causing:

  • Dizziness
  • Weakness 
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss 
  • Poor appetite 
  • Loss of interest in activities 

Hormonal

Since the hypothalamus helps regulate many hormones in the body, it can affect a variety of functions. For example, Kallmann syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the hypothalamus and leads to a delay or absence of puberty.

Common hormonal symptoms caused by a hypothalamus disorder include:  

  • Being short of stature
  • Delayed or absent puberty
  • Undescended or partially descended testicles
  • Infertility 

Sex 

Hypothalamus disorders can affect sexual function by causing problems such as: 

  • Vaginal dryness 
  • Erection issues 
  • Decreased libido
  • Infertility

Tests for Hypothalamus Disorders

A doctor can order tests to measure hormone levels in your body and determine if you have a hypothalamus disorder.

Common tests include:

  • Physical examinations
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Visual field eye exams
  • Brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computed tomography) scans 

Diet and Hypothalamus 

Your diet can affect the hypothalamus. For example, a diet high in saturated fats may cause inflammation in the hypothalamus and lead to obesity.

Consider eating a diet that is:

  • Low in dairy and meat
  • High in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish like salmon and tuna, nuts and seeds like walnuts and chia seeds, and leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • High in vegetables and fruit

Summary

The hypothalamus is a small but important part of your brain. It is responsible for making hormones that affect many body functions. If the hypothalamus is injured, it can cause a number of problems in the body, including unexplained weight gain, fatigue, reduced sex drive, and neurological issues like brain fog and memory loss.

A Word From Verywell

Knowing how the hypothalamus works can help you understand more about your brain and body. It is important to find ways to maintain your brain health and prevent problems. You should protect your brain from injury whenever possible and provide it with proper nutrition. 

You should seek medical help if you have persistent headaches and vision problems. They can be a symptom of a hypothalamus disorder or another serious condition that requires treatment. You do not want to ignore any neurological symptoms because the problem may get worse. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does the hypothalamus do?

    A healthy hypothalamus regulates your body processes and can release hormones that affect different functions.

  • What happens when the hypothalamus malfunctions?

    When the hypothalamus malfunctions, it can affect many functions in your body. Common symptoms of dysfunction are:

    • Unusual weight loss or gain 
    • Headaches
    • Vision loss
    • Fatigue
    • Weakness
    • Poor or increased appetite
    • Low body temperature 
    • Slow heart rate 
    • Mood swings



  • What hormones does the hypothalamus produce?

    The hypothalamus makes a variety of hormones, including:

    • Dopamine  
    • Somatostatin
    • Oxytocin
    • Vasopressin
    • Growth hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH)
    • Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) 
    • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)
    • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)


  • Does the hypothalamus control the pituitary gland?

    The hypothalamus controls the release of hormones from the pituitary gland.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Shahid Z, Asuka E, Singh G. Physiology, hypothalamus. StatPearls. Updated May 9, 2021.

  3. Sanchez Jimenez JG, De Jesus O. Hypothalamic dysfunction. StatPearls. Updated July 15, 2021.

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Hypothalamic dysfunction. Updated September 1, 2021.