Stress Affects More Than You Think!
Stress can have an impact on our overall health and well-being. Our bodies release hormones in times of stress. You may know this as the "fight or flight" response. The body shifts all its energy and resources towards fighting (or fleeing) a real or perceived threat. The response to stress signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol. These hormones increase heart and respiratory rates, dilate blood vessels, disrupt digestion, and increase blood glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream to provide additional energy to quickly prepare the body for the emerging threat. Once the crisis is over, the body returns to its pre-emergency state.
However, for many individuals the crisis is never over. For those who experience chronic stress, cortisol levels can stay elevated, and although cortisol is highly beneficial when needed, over time the constant unmanaged and elevated cortisol can put your health at risk.
How Cortisol Affects You
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis regulates both production and secretion of cortisol. Cortisol has many functions in the human body, including mediating the stress response, regulating metabolism (the body's use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates), the inflammatory response, and helping with the immune system. However, if you have too much cortisol, you may experience some of the following issues.
- Energy levels all over the place – Cortisol is naturally higher when you wake and should taper off as the day progresses. If your energy is out of wack, you may feel energy in the morning, sluggish all day, then a burst of energy at night.
- Sleeping issues – You may be able to fall asleep quite easily but wake up a few hours later with energy or a racing mind.
- Mood changes – You may feel anxious, irritable and quick to anger for no apparent reason
- Cardiovascular – Since cortisol helps regulate your water/salt balance, you may suffer from high blood pressure. The constricted arteries and high blood pressure can cause vessel damage and increase plaque buildup in your arteries.
- Immune system – Increased cortisol can hamper the immune system, making it more difficult to fight infections.
- Diabetes – The higher output of blood sugar for energy puts you at greater risk of type II diabetes.
- Inflammation – Cortisol helps reduce inflammation, but the process can turn against you if cortisol levels are continuously too high, resulting in various inflammatory diseases.
- Weight gain – You may have increased weight gain, especially around the abdomen area.
Weight gain is always a subject that people have concerns about, especially as we get older. Studies have shown a direct correlation between cortisol levels and weight gain. A continued release of cortisol results in a surge of energy in your body. In response, your body releases glucose into the bloodstream, which requires more insulin. This sends signals to your brain, increasing appetite, especially for carbohydrates or sweets.
But what if there is no threat? The increase of glucose intended to help the body is not used for energy to fight or flee and is then stored as fat.
The relationship between cortisol and insulin (to control blood glucose levels) plays havoc with your metabolism and results in weight gain. The weight is stored predominantly around the waistline (visceral fat). Fat cells in this area contain more stress hormone receptors. Visceral fat is particularly sensitive to high insulin, and the cells are very effective at storing energy (not burned).
Cortisol facilitates hormone production from your thyroid gland. And fluctuating cortisol levels can impair the conversion of thyroid hormone from its inactive form to its active form, resulting in low thyroid hormone production. This results in weight gain and sluggish metabolism.
How to Regulate Cortisol
Regulating cortisol is not a quick fix. It can take weeks or months of lifestyle changes and supplement support to break the cycle between stress and cortisol. Here are some recommendations.
- Exercise – Exercise and activity are critical and positive paths to stress reduction and weight management.
- Make healthy food choices – We naturally reach for comfort foods when stressed, but you do not need to reach for potato chips. Instead, stock your pantry with healthier choice "comfort" foods. (air-popped popcorn, sweet potato, oatmeal, or Greek yogurt).
- Practice mindful eating – Focus on what you eat, when and why. Consider a food journal to track habits. You would be surprised about what you eat through out a day and a journal is a good way to keep you accountable.
- Testing – Want to know where your adrenals stand? There is a great noninvasive salivary test that evaluates the body’s important stress hormones, cortisol and DHEA. Available through Village Green, the Adrenal Stress Profile can be done at home and can help to uncover biochemical imbalances that may be causing your symptoms.
Adaptogenic herbs help balance, restore and protect the body from stress and anxiety. They assist the body's response to stressors of all kinds. Each type of adaptogenic herb or nutrient may provide a slightly different function. Adaptogens are used in adrenal formulations on their own or combined to enhance your specific needs. Two of the most researched adaptogenic herbs include:
- Ashwagandha has been shown to lower cortisol by up to 30% when taken regularly for 30-60 days. Research suggests ashwagandha gets its stress-easing power from unique plant compounds called glycowithanolides, which activate brain receptors to calm the body down during stressful times and support restful sleep
- Rhodiola has been used to enhance the body's natural resistance to physical stresses for fighting fatigue and uplifting mood. Studies show rhodiola positively impacts elevated morning cortisol (a sign of chronic stress). This herb has been linked to increased stamina, well-being, attention and learning.
Another helpful supplement for regulating cortisol is L-theanine:
- L-Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea that calms and relaxes the body and mind, without causing drowsiness. It is particularly helpful for relieving anxiety and stress, enhancing sleep quality, improving attention, supporting memory and cognition, and benefiting cardiovascular health. Studies show theanine increases alpha waves in the brain, which produce an alert, yet relaxed state. It also helps block excitatory stimuli, while producing the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA, and has been shown to have protective effects on brain cells during acute stress. Another benefit is that theanine can counter the jitteriness of stimulants, such as caffeine.
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Paula is a highly qualified and experienced nutrition counselor on the staff at Village Green.
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Dr. Barnard leads programs advocating for preventive medicine, good nutrition, and higher ethical standards in research.
Dr. Joseph Pizzorno
Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, ND is a pioneer of integrative medicine and a leading authority on science-based natural medicine.
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Dr. Rav Ivker is a holistic family physician, health educator, and best-selling author.
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Dr. Brown's blended perspective of healthcare includes a deeply rooted passion for wellness and spiritual exploration.