Stress: A Pandemic that is Killing People

Do you wake up feeling tired even after sleeping well? Do you suddenly hit a mid-afternoon wall that makes you want to take a nap? Do you rely on coffee to kick-start your morning? Have you gone to your doctor complaining of exhaustion, only to be told that you are fine? How’s your stress level?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should read on. While it’s normal to occasionally feel tired or sluggish, especially after a busy week, it should not be your norm. If you regularly lack energy, you may have a problem with your cortisol production.

The real pandemic

You can’t turn on the news, walk into the grocery store, or even take a stroll in the neighborhood without hearing about the pandemic. Equipped with masks and social distancing rules, most of society now lives in a constant state of fear.

While the coronavirus has taken center stage worldwide, many serious health problems are being overshadowed. One could argue that the real pandemic — the one that is killing more people than ever — is stress. 

Three-quarters of Americans reported moderate to high-stress levels within the last month. And while the phrase “I’m stressed out” seems benign, stress quite literally kills. One study concluded that 8 million deaths each year are attributable to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. 

Cortisol: the stress hormone

Our perfectly-made bodies are equipped with a mechanism to combat life’s inevitable stress. Whether facing a looming working deadline, dealing with a difficult family member, or simply sitting in traffic, there is a well-orchestrated system ready to help us combat stress. 

As our body perceives a stressful situation, it triggers a cascade of biological events. First, the hypothalamus in the brain sends a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, in turn, alerts the two small glands that rest above the kidneys to get to work. These adrenal glands respond to the potential threat by releasing cortisol. 

Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol serves many vital functions in the body. For example, cortisol helps control blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure, and manage metabolism. 

Understanding cortisol levels

According to the body’s internal 24-hour clock, cortisol levels naturally rise and fall. For example, cortisol levels reach their lowest levels around midnight and steadily rise as morning approaches. In most people, cortisol peaks in the mid-morning. The cycle repeats itself daily. 

Various factors such as irregular sleep patterns, physical illness, certain medications, and stress can disrupt cortisol. Additionally, everyone manages stress differently. As a result, one person might secrete cortisol in a situation that another would not. 

The amount of cortisol produced by the body is tightly regulated. While the short-term release of cortisol is essential and even life-saving, long-term elevations can lead to health problems. At the same time, lower than normal cortisol levels negatively impact health. 

Cortisol is measured via blood, urine, or saliva. Ideally, cortisol is tested multiple times throughout the day. This way, doctors can evaluate an accurate picture of the ebbs and flows of cortisol. 

What happens to the body when cortisol is released?

Nearly every cell of the body has cortisol receptors. Therefore, its impacts are far-reaching. 

During a fight-or-flight situation, the body prepares for the impending danger. Elevated cortisol triggers the liver to release glucose into the bloodstream, supplying the body with the energy it may need to handle the situation. At the same time, cortisol tells the pancreas to stop producing insulin so that the glucose will remain available. 

Additionally, cortisol narrows the arteries, working with other hormones to increase heart rate and blood pressure. During stress, cortisol also inhibits other non-essential processes such as digestion. 

Adrenal dysfunction = body fatigue 

Organs have demanding jobs, and when overworked, they can get tired. For example, individuals who eat a poor diet filled with sugar and carbohydrates sometimes develop type 2 diabetes. It’s as though the pancreas throws up the white flag, declaring, “I’m out of insulin. I can’t work any harder.” The same may be true for the adrenals.

Health practitioners are beginning to discover that the adrenal glands may have a finite ability to produce cortisol. As a result, the term “adrenal fatigue” refers to individuals who experience symptoms such as low energy, exhaustion, anxiety, sleep, and digestive issues. 

Many mainstream medical doctors and a few scientific studies refute the idea that the adrenal glands burn out over time. Although adrenal fatigue may not be a recognized diagnosis by all physicians, the symptoms an individual faces after prolonged stress are indeed real. 

When the adrenals are not producing sufficient cortisol, individuals may feel exhausted, dizzy, and weak. Additionally, they might experience weight loss and mood changes. 

The cortisol-cholesterol relationship

As with all steroid hormones, cortisol is synthesized naturally in the body from cholesterol. Since cholesterol is a precursor of cortisol, cholesterol-lowering medications may negatively impact the production of cortisol. In fact, studies have found that individuals taking statin drugs often experience significant mood and behavioral changes, including anxiety, depression, and irritability. So it’s entirely possible that lowering cholesterol, and thus cortisol, makes stress more challenging to handle. 

There’s another interesting relationship between cortisol and cholesterol. Excess cortisol causes high blood glucose levels, leading to diabetes and high cholesterol. The body converts unused sugars in the blood into triglycerides, translating to added weight. Studies have found a relationship between cortisol and cholesterol, especially in individuals with coronary artery disease. 

Lifestyle choices and cortisol

Beyond psychological stress, physical stress has a significant impact on cortisol levels. Physical stress includes poor diet, lack of quality sleep, and exposure to toxins, all of which deplete the body’s ability to keep cortisol regulated. 

Many people turn to food during times of stress. But, while reaching for a candy bar or a bag of potato chips may feel good at the moment, the long-term consequences are dire. Studies have found that diets high in added sugar and refined grains lead to higher cortisol levels than a healthy, whole food diet. 

Unhealthy diets also contribute to a diminished gut biome. The gut microbiome contains trillions of organisms that live in the digestive tract. These organisms work symbiotically to support health. Science is beginning to uncover how cortisol helps the gut and brain communicate. 

Exposure to environmental toxins such as cleaning products, chemicals, and pollution all impact cortisol. A recent study found that blood cortisol levels rise with exposure to dirty air. Equally concerning, exposure to polluted air leads to higher blood pressure and insulin resistance, both of which increase the risk of heart disease. Minimizing exposure to unhealthy chemicals and prioritizing clean air goes a long way in reducing cortisol levels. 

Balancing cortisol 

The key to improving energy and bringing a sense of peace back into life involves balancing cortisol levels. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some basic things you can do to ensure your body has all the tools it needs to produce the right amount of this critical hormone, including: 

Next Steps

It’s easy to blame exhaustion or lack of energy on the aging process. However, can live full and vibrant lives until the end. Chronic fatigue is your body’s way of alerting you that something is out of balance. Pay attention to your body and heed its warning. Then, you will see how quickly you regain that youthful feeling. 

If you are greatly affected by stressors and need a little extra support, our Relax — Cherry supplement powder could be just what you need to promote stress resiliency and create a calm, balanced emotional state.

Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well 

Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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