Let's Take a Closer Look at the health risks of too much cortisol
The negative impact of mental illness on our health and well-being is influenced by hormones released to help our body and mind cope during stressful situations. This is often referred to 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 adrenalin, 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.
For individuals who experience continued stress over a period of time (chronic stress), cortisol levels can stay elevated or flux. Cortisol is highly beneficial when needed, but over time and unmanaged can put your health at risk.
Let's Take a Closer Look at Cortisol
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 immunity; all of which impact memory, blood sugar control (an underlying cause of stubborn weight gain) and your sleep-wake cycle.
What if you have too much cortisol?
- Energy out of Wack? – cortisol is naturally higher upon waking 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 disorders- You may be able to fall asleep quite easily but wake up a few hours later with energy or a racing mind
- You may feel anxious, irritable and quick to anger for no apparent reason
- 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.
- Increased cortisol can hamper the immune system making it more difficult to fight infections
- The higher output of blood sugar for energy puts you at greater risk of type II diabetes
- Cortisol helps reduce inflammation, but the process can turn against you if cortisol levels are too high, resulting in various inflammatory diseases.
- You could be more susceptible to colds and other contagious diseases
You may have increased weight gain, especially around the middle! Because too much Stress Can Cause Fat Storage
Studies have demonstrated 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 which is then stored as FAT!
The battered 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.
Generally, stressed individuals tend to burn fewer calories than those with lower stress levels. As well, skipping meals and insufficient sleep negatively impacts your metabolism
How to break the cycle?
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.
Make exercise a priority- Exercise and activity are critical and positive paths to stress reduction and weight management. Find a reason to do something physical every day
Choose healthier comfort foods- we naturally reach for comfort foods when stressed, but you do not need to reach for high carbohydrate foods (or high fat) to make you feel better. Ensure your pantry is stocked with healthier choice "comfort" foods. (air-popped popcorn, sweet potato, oatmeal, yogurt, sherbert or low-fat ice cream)
Practice mindful eating- Focus on what you eat, when and why. Consider a food journal to track habits
Manage Cortisol with Supplementation
Many supplements are formulated to deal with condition-specific issues. These include adrenal gland support from:
St Francis Herb Farm - Strest – (Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Oat, Rhodiola & Schisandra)
CanPrev - Adrenal Chill (high dose of Ashwagandha and L-theanine)
CanPrev - Adrenal Pro- (L-tyrosine, Ashwagandha, Astragalus, L-Tyrosine, Siberian Ginseng, & supporting vitamins)
WOMENSENSE - AdrenaSense (Ashwagandha, Schisandra, Roseroot, Siberian Ginseng, Suma)
Adaptogens to the Rescue
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. Some of the most researched adaptogenic herbs include
Ashwagandha – Also known as (Withania somnifera) is a traditional Indian Ayurvedic herb with immune-enhancing effects and anti-inflammatory properties. Ashwagandha has been shown to lower cortisol by up to 30% when taken regularly for 30-60 days. Look for Ashwagandha, which contains KSM-66. 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
Siberian Ginseng – also known as (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a popular adaptogen that helps the body cope and to adapt to adverse physical stress and enhance mental performance. It reduces abnormal cortisol production, resulting in improved immunity and glucose metabolism.
Holy Basil A popular botanical, Holy Basil (Tulsi), works as an adaptogen for physical support and emotional endurance. It can lower chronic cortisol levels caused by ongoing stress. It is a potent anti-inflammatory; if that's not enough, it can effectively reduce stress caused by loud noise!
Rhodiola Individuals suffering from burnout, chronic stress or excess fatigue often reach for Rhodiola. It has been used to enhance the body's natural resistance to physical stresses for fighting fatigue and uplift 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.
L-THEANINE is an amino acid naturally found in black and green tea. It increases alpha brain wave activity which helps offers mental calmness. This popular supplement elevates GABA, serotonin and dopamine levels, which are key neurotransmitters that regulate emotions, mood, appetite and sleep. L-theanine calms the brain yet increases alertness.