Cortisol: The Stress, Aging and Obesity Hormone

by Michael Cheikin

Stress. We all know what it feels like. We also know that it affects our health, but how?

Understanding Stress

Stress is defined in terms of a system pushed to its limits. For example, bridges are designed to handle the stress of a fixed weight, and no more. However, living systems, when subjected to normal amounts of stress, grow stronger. In fact, stress is necessary for optimal development, growth and fun. Homework and sports are examples of how controlled stress, or challenge, makes us better. All systems of our body are designed to handle stress and grow stronger (even into old age) so that we can survive and procreate. 

Cortisol and Chronic Stress

Cortisol is an important hormone that affects every cell and system of the body. In the short-term, it helps the body respond and recover from acute stress by releasing and shunting resources (sugar, amino acids, fat) from certain tissues, such as muscle. However, these same effects, if continuous, essentially accelerate aging. In chronic stress, cortisol is not only higher, it is released earlier, to a greater extent and with more sensitivity. In addition, the normal daily (circadian) pattern of cortisol, which should peak at 4 to 5 a.m., shifts to earlier in the night. This sets off a cascade of other effects that perpetuate and magnify this pattern.

Cortisol is so important to the body that it will rob Peter to pay Paul. The body will alter and steal from other hormone systems to maintain cortisol levels. Even in prolonged adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels are often “normal”. This “normal” is actually a fatigued high. Once a body is in this mode, many things that we try, such as extreme diets and exercise after cortisol-based weight gain, deepen the rut. In addition to abdominal weight gain, there is also weakness, atrophy of the skin, muscle, irritability, poor sleep, fatigue, illness and more.

How to Decrease Cortisol

  • STRESS. The best way to decrease cortisol, long-term, is to de-stress. However, if we stress ourselves to de-stress, then this will not work. Also, we cannot begin by fixing the world’s problems; therefore, the approach has to begin with the individual.
  • SLEEP. Quality and quantity of sleep are non-negotiable. Any efforts to improve sleep should be considered critical, including consistent bed and wake time seven days per week, a pitch-black silent chamber, no stimulating activities for at least an hour before sleep, light meals several hours before bedtime, reducing stimulants and incorporating wind-down rituals, such as music, baths and journaling.
  • NUTRITION. Several nutritional interventions are both important and necessary. Severely limiting, or preferably eliminating, stimulating foods such as caffeine and sugar, and known toxins such as alcohol, drugs, nitrates and MSG, is often critical. Many people have food allergies (often the foods we crave), which act as stressors and have to be eliminated and detoxified before substantial healing can occur. Essential vitamins, minerals and oils, as well as special supplements, are often needed to restore balance.
  • YOGA. Classic yoga, preferably in a class setting, is critical for rebalancing these complex and subtle systems. Adrenal yoga is slow and not strenuous. It should follow any stressor, including aerobic exercise.
  • BODY/ENERGY WORK. Body and energy work, including acupuncture, massage, reiki and other modalities, can facilitate a resetting but will not work without working on other problem areas, such as sleep and diet.
  • PSYCHO-SPIRITUAL WORK. Psycho-spiritual work is important to learn about the self and how we are violent to ourselves. Yoga is one form, but sometimes people are stuck in neuro-energetic, emotional ruts that require psychotherapy or more specialized techniques such as EMDR, NET and NMT.
  • TESTING. Testing for heavy metals, nutritional deficiencies, chronic infections (Lyme, yeast, parasites), hormonal imbalances, immune dysfunction and other toxins and stressors is often necessary.
  • HOLISTIC HELP. In many cases, working with a holistic practitioner that is knowledgeable in testing, special supplements and modalities to re-balance these systems is necessary. In addition, such a practitioner can gently challenge a patient to re-think priorities, accept change and limit excuses. Such coaching is often needed to counteract the huge forces that encourage us to chronically stress ourselves into “dis-ease”.

Michael Cheikin, M.D., practices holistic medicine and physiatry at Center for Optimal Health, in Plymouth Meeting. For more information, call 610-239-9901, email Query@c4oh.org or visit Cheikin.com. October 2018

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