As described in the previous article cortisol and other stress hormones are essential for survival and adaptation to stress. “Stress” was originally an engineering term defining how much pressure or weight can be placed on a beam before it breaks. Dr. Hans Selye related the term “stress” to the human psyche. Holistically external threats to our “peace of mind” include mental, chemical and physical stressors. Examples of mental stress are worrier type people, family strife, economic troubles etc., physical stress could be a car accident, or lack of exercise or exercising incorrectly or having an old sagging mattress, chemical stress is eating and drinking the wrong foods, and even breathing toxic air, or moldy air. Of major concern, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated as a result of chronic “stress’ that becomes as dangerous to our health as the external threats.
While other hormones decline with age, cortisol levels increase with age, thereby further leading to many chronic degenerative diseases. Cortisol imbalance can leads to chronic fatigue, weight gain, immune suppression, joint and muscle pain (fibromyalgia), anxiety and panic, depression, insomnia, and digestive symptoms such as reflux/ heartburn. Mainstream doctors are treating the symptom not the cause with an array of medications which further toxify and weaken our bodies. We are in an epidemic of chronic degenerative disease costing billions of dollars to treat and the real cause is ignored. These are diseases of maladaptation, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and mental illnesses. Holistic alternative doctors focus on reducing the cortisol response with natural herbs , vitamins, minerals and substances found in our bodies such as GABA, SAMe, or DMG. Therapies such as biofeedback, yoga etc are also advised.
There are currently millions of Americans with a pre-diabetic condition called insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. The energy substance in our bodies is glucose, a simple sugar. When extra energy is required as a result of any stress stimuli like running away from a lion super fast, glucose is released from storage areas in our bodies. A too frequent response to “stress”, mobilizing glucose and free fat production, can lead to insulin resistance. In this state insulin, from the pancreas, which is needed to bring blood sugar into the cells, becomes non-effective. Cortisol is the culprit, due to its effect on cell membrane receptors rendered incapable of accepting the insulin-glucose molecule. So cortisol directly contributes to increased blood sugar levels, to more insulin resistance and to greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
For many “over-stressed” people, the related symptoms of chronic fatigue, anxiety/panic, depression, insomnia and tight painful muscles, are caused or made worse by the cortisol overproduction. Increased cortisol levels promote appetite and food cravings. This dysregulated state also is linked to obesity, abdominal fat accumulation, and reduced muscle mass.
This series of articles began with an in depth discussion on thyroid gland function and the role of iodine for our health. I pointed out a need for balancing all the hormone systems. As a prime example of this, elevated cortisol levels inhibit thyroid activity. This then leads, with a viscous cycle, further chronic fatigue, slower metabolism, weight gain etc. Lowered sex hormones due to chronic cortisol elevation have been reported as well.
In a variety of ways increased stress hormones suppress the immune system leaving susceptibility to chronic infection. Elevated cortisol has been linked to osteoporosis/bone loss, and increased inflammation in various systems and places.
Lastly, digestive illnesses such as ulcers, irritable bowel (IBS), Chrones’s /colitis, have been associated with increased stress hormones. With a weakened intestinal absorption of nutrients and minerals many other conditions may arise. This poor state of health further worsenes maladaptation and the allostatic load.
The next article in this series will discuss which dietary substances are most likely to cause allostatic stress. Stay tune!