Stress, Cortisol and Your Health
- Wednesday, 03 September 2008
Are you stressed? Do you feel overwhelmed and worn down from the demands of your professional and personal lives? Do you find your energy levels and your health in decline? Do you wish you could achieve more in a day without suffering the ill effects of an overworked and rundown immune system?
Stress is something we all struggle with and the rapid pace of our modern world only seems to exacerbate the situation. Yet, many of us aren’t even aware of just how deeply stress can affect every aspect of our lives.
Simply put, stress is anything that causes strain, mental or physical. Regardless of where it’s coming from, stress, with its far-reaching consequences, affects everyone in some way. Just about anything can cause stress, from the pollutants in our drinking water to our poor modern diets to our concerns about jobs and relationships.
Stress is like a fire; when it’s controlled and used for a purpose, it can be beneficial, but when left unbridled, it can consume us. There are certain stresses that our body can adapt to which can be quite beneficial. Exercise, for example, is a stress. If you exercise and then rest, your body will grow stronger. However, stress has become, now more than ever, a real threat to our health and livelihood, often overwhelming us and, in some cases, even controlling us.
Cortisol and Stress
Located on top of the kidneys are two small, triangular adrenal glands that play a large role in the body’s response to stress. During times of elevated stress, regardless of its source, the body’s adrenal glands kick into action, secreting the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol is sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone” for the simple reason that its release is triggered by stress.
While cortisol stimulates us to deal with an apparent threat, regular stimulation will lead to fatigue. Since our adrenal glands were not designed to be used as often as they are today, they become overworked, resulting in exhaustion. Adrenal burnout, as it is commonly referred to, has become a widespread problem in today’s society.
Many of our modern-day health problems are caused by stress. Obesity, fatigue, mental fog, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, prematurely wrinkled skin, depression . . . the list goes on. If stress, and therefore cortisol, remains elevated, several problems arise to hamper our body’s smooth functioning. Stressed people burn, and in turn crave, carbohydrates that the body begins to store as fat instead of using it for energy. Stress can also cause hormonal imbalance. When cortisol levels change rapidly, the hormone’s symbiotic relationship with other hormones is altered. This leads to a host of problems, including basic malnutrition. Hormone imbalance can also cause slowed mental ability and impair the delivery of messages from the brain to other parts of the body, slowing movement.
As stress mounts, the body’s natural ability to sleep soundly is compromised. We have all had difficulty falling asleep after a traumatic event, or perhaps even after taking on a new, uncertain project at work. As you probably suspected, high cortisol levels are again to blame and lack of sleep raises cortisol levels even further, perpetuating a vicious cycle. In these instances the body has an increased need for sleep at heightened times of stress and yet is unable to get it.
Fortunately, relief from the largest source of stress we endure is entirely within our control. It is estimated that as much as 40 percent of all stress can be attributed to a poor diet. I believe the most effective way to reduce overall stress in the body is through a balanced diet. A properly implemented whole food, plant-based diet can help alleviate nutritional stress, while poor dietary choices will perpetuate it. The solution is not as simple as just withdrawing from stress; it's about reducing nutritional stress and making our diets work for us rather than against us. The following are some suggestions to get you started:
- Choose foods rich in a wide spectrum of protein-forming amino acids such as leafy greens, hemp, sprouts and legumes.
- Ensure adequate intake of essential fatty acids, especially the elusive omega-3s which can be found in flax and hemp.
- Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible while avoiding overly cooked, processed foods that lack adequate fiber or are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates.
- Nourish the adrenal glands to help regulate hormone levels. Maca, a root vegetable grown in Peru, has been shown to do this and effectively curtail stress.
For those who are always on the run (like me), an easy and convenient way to incorporate more plant-based whole foods in your diet is through a daily shake or smoothie. It's easy to pack nutrients into liquid form which improves absorption and requires less energy to digest. I have one or more nutrient-packed shakes daily to ensure that I get all the nutrients I need to support my activity level and induce a quick recovery. Ideally, a shake should contain all the elements of a compete meal and be made from plant-based whole foods.
Demands on us may be increasing but the good news is there is a great deal one can do to control stress and ultimately achieve more without feeling rundown.