Stress, Cortisol, and Your Health

This month we will be discussing one of my favorite topics: the adrenal glands.  Chances are if you have seen me as a patient you already know about this idea, as stress is something that I focus on heavily in treating ALL health problems.  The adrenal glands govern our response to stress and can often become overburdened.  As we know too much unprocessed stress in our lives leads to insomnia, poor immunity from colds, digestive issues, hormone imbalance and slow metabolism.  The villain behind all of these effects of stress: cortisol, the primary stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands.

Cortisol is a normal hormone produced in all mammals in a cyclic rhythm over a 24-hour period.  In a healthy, unstressed person cortisol levels start to rise around 5 AM and hit their peak as we wake, making us spring out of bed, alert and ready to face the day.  Cortisol levels then decline throughout the day, reaching their lowest point at bedtime.  Or I should say, when we SHOULD go to bed.  (Ever experienced the phenomenon of being sleepy at night and pushing on through and getting a “second wind”?  Cortisol has started to rise again at this point and will make sleep difficult when it is actually desired.)

SO…what’s going on with hitting the snooze button twenty times and needing 3 cups of coffee to get out the door and being exhausted all day?  OR…what’s going on with getting in to bed and then not being able to shut off the brain and watching the clock all night?  Well, that’s when the adrenal function has started to go wrong in response to stress.  As Americans, we put ourselves under a lot of stress.  We have careers and family and relationships and have to keep our house clean and meet deadlines and take our kids to a gazillion different activities and somewhere amongst all this madness we are supposed to take care of ourselves.  Unsurprisingly, this last duty often gets neglected.  What we expect of ourselves often exceeds what we are actually capable of and stress is the result.  Stress is also the result of unhappy romantic relationships, unsatisfying work conditions, financial difficulties and conflict with family or friends.  Cortisol is secreted in response to the body sensing that there are stressful conditions in our lives.  Over many years of stress, chronically high levels of cortisol affect our systems negatively.  After many years of chronic stress, the adrenal glands eventually will “burn out” becoming incapable of producing not only cortisol, but the other hormones it is responsible for manufacturing.

Let’s look at the reasons behind why cortisol does what it does, keeping in mind that human beings live very different lives in the current day than we did even 1,000 years ago.  When we lived a lot closer to nature and didn’t have the chronic stressors that we have currently, stress only occurred during events such as famines, or wars, or being hunted by predators.  Cortisol makes us crave carbohydrates and sugar; these are quick sources of energy that can fuel us if we needed to run away from something in a hurry.  Cortisol suppresses Leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full while eating; during famines we want to be able to eat as much as we can when we have the opportunity.  Cortisol makes our metabolism run slowly; when there is not enough food to eat our systems are stingy with burning calories.  Cortisol disrupts hormone balance; during times of stress, nature doesn’t want us reproducing.  Cortisol makes us not sleep well; because if we sleep well a tiger might find us and eat us.  Cortisol shuts down our digestive tracts; when running away from a tiger, it is very inconvenient to have stop and have a bowel movement.  Cortisol suppresses our immune systems; when running away from a tiger, it is quite helpful to have a natural anti-inflammatory being pumped into your system.  In fact, “Cortisone” the steroid drug gets its name from the molecule it is modeled after, which is, say it with me, Cortisol.

So, given that we no longer have any natural predators and have plenty of food to eat how do we prevent Cortisol from ruining our metabolism, giving us insomnia, causing our digestive tracts and immune systems to malfunction and throwing our hormones all out of whack?

First and foremost, PROCESS YOUR STRESS.  There are many ways to do this, but I find that the most effective combinations have to do with mental AND physical processing.  Exercise is of course the best way to prevent stress from accumulating in the body’s tissues but beyond this it is necessary to articulate the problem in our lives that cause stress.  A walk with a loved one?  Perfect.  Exercise and talk therapy?  Great.  Above all, DO NOT KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.

Second, cooperate with what your body wants to do.  Go to bed when its time.  Rest when you are feeling run down.  Drowning yourself in caffeine and sugar to get through the day is not doing what your body wants to do.

Third, get ahold of your thought process.  The majority of stressors in our lives are about perception.  Realize that you are the only one who can control your reaction to stressful circumstances and that you only have control over your own actions (not those of other people).  Pick your battles and reframe the situation: how can you change it for the better rather than spending your valuable energy stressing over it?

Fourth, if you are indeed excessively stressed out and are seeing the negative effects on your health, do not let this become a pattern for you.  Take action.  The adrenal glands can be assessed via a 4-point saliva sample that you take at home and then send out via UPS and there are many different types of treatments available for those with excessive Cortisol secretion.  Contact me, or another licensed holistic health care provider (MDs don’t really believe in the adrenal glands), for further information.

Lastly, if you are beyond the stressed out stage and have gotten to the TOTALLY EXHAUSTED stage where you can sleep 14 hours a night and still wake up tired and can’t quite bring yourself to care about anything, this is when you really do need to take a more proactive role in your health.  Adrenal fatigue can lead to chronic infections, thyroid disorders, neurological diseases like fibromyalgia, mental health conditions like depression and completely withdrawing from the world from exhaustion.  There are many effective ways of preventing this kind of decline or for pulling those already in it back to normal functioning.

So, the moral of the Cortisol connection?  Don’t fall into the stress trap.  It is not a good place to be and has detrimental effects on mental and physical health.  Process the stress that is a necessary part of being a human being and let the small stuff go.  When you are having a tough day, focus on the positive and be grateful for the good things in life.  If this is an insurmountable task, ask for help.