Sabertooth Tigers and Starbucks: Cortisol Cometh’

paul-m-485838-unsplash

 

I am moving. It’s kind of a complex, last-minute situation and I’ve moved twice in 12 months already, so suffice it to say I am stressed out. In fact, “stressed out” is basically an understatement, so this post is close to home – despite my being between homes – insert crazy face emoji here.

Chronically elevated cortisol, essentially a chronic state of “fight or flight” level stress response is an epidemic in current times. Constant stress in and of itself is problematic. I mean who wants to live their whole life as if they are being chased by a saber tooth tiger? Exactly. But the correlation between chronically elevated cortisol levels and a variety of dysfunctions in the endocrine system (the system in charge of hormones) is a problem that affects the current and future quality of our health and homodynamic state.

Some stress, in small, infrequent doses is healthy. It exists for the very reason that sometimes your body needs a systemic “jump-start” to stay alive. I’m going to be real and admit that I’m not familiar with an actual low stress existence though I now eat, take supplements and practice mindfulness to improve the way I manage it.

I’ve spent most my life living in NY and LA – AKA stress hubs. The saber tooth tiger situation is a joke, but not really, cortisol comes to the rescue in emergencies like when fending off an attacker. In those moments all energetic focus is taken away from other systems to deal with the stressor at hand. Unfortunately many of us are living in this state almost constantly.

pim-chu-245596-unsplash

 

Cortisol spiking stress comes from many places. Refined sugar and a high glycemic diet is a prime suspect that most people are not entirely aware of. Coffee and other stimulants that many of us use to create false energy are another common yet not innocuous source. The list goes on to include alcohol, nutritional weakness, disease, emotional trauma and the side effects of living in the modern world with a 24 hour news cycle and excessive commutes.  The un-managed drive to fit in, be thin, manage family, pay bills…all of that contributes to the stress load on your system. Any of these things resonate with you?? If not, you are living on an ashram and I salute you.

Put simply, chronic stress response equals chronic output of cortisol.

So what does that mean? Well, lots of things. One example is insulin resistance. Chronically elevated cortisol eventually results in insulin resistance, a situation where the body loses the ability to regulate blood sugar. High blood sugar equals poor metabolic outcomes like diabetes and obesity. Many Americans while not categorized as diabetic (yet) are hovering in this area that is doing major damage on a cellular level. Sadly this is an area where your standard physical drops the ball. The few paces between insulin resistance and full blow diabetes is where a lot more people are hanging out than one might imagine. And obesity, well, no one is NOT aware that we have a bit of an epidemic in that arena.

Another side effect of chronic cortisol levels is thyroid disease. Under chronic stress the body cannot produce adequate supplies of thyroid hormones T3 and T4. T3 is needed to convert T4 to its active form. In an effort to deal with a prolonged stress response the adrenal glands are actually stealing nutrients and hormonal precursors from the rest of the endocrine system causing metabolic problems.  These can look like inability to lose weight, wake up, sleep through the night or stop snacking uncontrollably (the body’s attempt to respond to dips in blood sugar.) Your body is fighting in this war on the daily. Even if you can’t put the feelings into words, your body is struggling with this cortisol dance all the time. We are not collectively aware enough about how the culture of stress from stress inducing foods to extreme workouts is not so slowly killing us.

The next victim of chronically elevated cortisol? Sex hormones. Yes, those hormones we need to have a well-functioning reproductive system. We need them to have a happy sex life, and/or make babies if that’s what you are into. When under chronic stress, the body has to prioritize dealing with the “emergency situation” because there is no time to focus of reproduction or on having delightful orgasms. This makes sense because in an actual primitive emergency it would make ZERO sense to be focused on reproduction (or orgasms) if your body thinks you are about to be eaten by an apex predator.

The problem is that a woman eating super high glycemic breakfast of sugary carbs and a coffee the size of a newborn baby while on the phone AND walking out of a Starbucks is not necessarily in an actual emergency. I mean she is but she doesn’t even realize it. When this woman starts to crash after consuming the 69 grams of carbohydrates in a Venti, skim, white mocha, her body now with low blood sugar will be looking for a hit of something to bring her blood sugar back up. The blood sugar roller coaster is itself a source of stress.

When that same woman is attempting to get pregnant, the body’s prioritization system or innate intelligence will still treat her stress-spiking eating and lifestyle as the more critical process to attend to. Living another day trumps reproduction and everything else) to a body designed to survive in a world with occasional flight or fight situations. That world is gone. We live in a world bombarded with fight or flight inducing everything.

The take-away? You need to reduce stress in all of it’s forms (including sugar spiking breakfasts on the run) so your body can focus on staying balanced, working optimally and you can depend on its finely tuned system to thrive instead of just survive. Tame that tiger and extend that length and quality of your life. Avoiding refined sugar is one clear-cut choice you can make that while not easy is achievable and will go a long way to evening out blood sugar balance.

Once I have moved in a couple of weeks I will start rolling out my tricks and recipes for reducing and eliminating refined sugar. Or I’ll be in the bottom of a non-dairy coconut ice cream sundae, it’s too soon to tell. Till then, deep breaths.

Fun Fact: Adrenaline, the OTHER stress hormone, also known as the fight or flight hormone is produced when the adrenal glands get a message from the brain that a stressful situation is in progress. Muscles tense, heart rate increases and you have sudden surge of ‘save your damn life energy.” Anyway, the adrenaline inducing situation could last 5 minutes but it could take 5 hours or more for the effects in your body to come back into balance.

 

 

Food and Mood: The Digestion Connection

Food and mood are in a relationship, and for most of us It’s Complicated when it really shouldn’t be. Food and its proper digestion are critical to the achievement and maintenance of optimal mental wellness of which mood is a part. Yeah, I’m saying mental health is A LOT about nutrition. What we eat doesn’t change the world we live in (well that’s not true) but it does change our biochemical ability to thrive, manage and live in the world.

The concept though not often addressed in the standard “diagnose a disorder” and “prescribe a drug” health model because that model breezes past the fact that in most cases, our bodies are designed to be able to achieve this state of being through eating a proper nutrient dense diet.  Diet, along with movement, sunlight and other positive lifestyle choices like reducing social media scrolling are the moving parts of a healthy mood. This does not mean that drugs are never called for, but it’s beyond disturbing how little the average person knows about the correlation between nutrition and mental health. The limitations caused by nearly non-existent nutrition curriculum in medical schools (a future post,) plus a desire to feel better without sourcing the root cause (a time-consuming but valuable process) are part of what’s wrong so I want to take some time to rap about food and mood. Not literally rap, but keep reading anyway. Food and mood are 100% interconnected, the better and more well-rounded your diet the better your mood should/could be.

But there’s more. The thing that nutritional therapists and other whole-self practitioners know is that eating a properly prepared, nutrient dense diet is KEY, but you need to be able to digest the food you are eating to break down and disseminate the foods into the precursors needed to maintain mental health and mood stability. Yes, I am borderline yelling. Digestion is everything. The Digestion Connection will be a running theme on The Well Spell.

All the turkey, salmon and $13 dollar super food smoothie bowls can be ingested, but if they are not being properly digested the opposite of mental health wellness occurs. A leaky gut full of rancidified fats and putrid proteins (stop and picture that) is not giving you the broken down raw materials needed to create neurotransmitters that are responsible for stabilizing mood, sleep patterns and memory among other things. In fact it’s just breaking YOU down from the inside out.

Raise your hand if you would like to experience better moods, sleep and memory. All the hands are up except the deliriously happy friend you suspect is maybe an alien. So for example: biotin, folic acid and B12 are vitamins critical to neurological balance, so if they are not being derived from foods (and or supplementation) there are likely to be signs and symptoms of depression. In another post I’ll talk about foods that really support mental health, I promise.

So what is involved in digesting food to elevate your mood? First off, you need a proper stomach pH. Though we live in antacid pushing times, most people are actually suffering from inadequate stomach acid and not too much as the never-ending Prilosec and Nexium ads on TV would make you think. Proper stomach acid is essential to digest protein enough to cleave amino acids needed to create neurotransmitters such as glutamine, taurine and tyrosine. Don’t fall asleep on my nutritional nerd-out. These ines may not be familiar to you, but you may have heard about serotonin, GABA and dopamine, which are three of 5 critical neurotransmitters, needed for balanced brain chemistry. We need that stomach acid at the proper levels to get anywhere close to producing these “feel good” vibes in adequate amounts.

Beyond stomach acid, you need to also have proper liver and gallbladder function; itself dependent on eating and digesting balanced quality fats. I’m endlessness surprised that people think not eating fat is an option. Fat is LIFE. One example of this system not working optimally would be in someone following a low-fat diet lacking in essential fatty acids. Without proper, balanced fatty acids or in a case where someone eats them but isn’t properly digesting them because of digestive dysfunction (see low stomach acid problems or eating while talking on the phone in the car,) you CANNOT get the fat-soluble vitamins that are ALSO, you guessed it, precursors to optimal brain health.

Add to the list of things that must be working: Elimination. A body backed up with undigested or even digested toxins is struggling and noy just with icky bloat and discomfort. Poor mood and a whole array of other negative health situations arise when the liver and colon are not pulling their weight in the digestive cascade. I will avoid “shitty mood” jokes here.  “How to eat to improve your shitty mood” could be on my business card.

Lastly, most people don’t know that intestines are the primary production site of serotonin. Serotonin is casually thought of as a happy neurotransmitter that we all want more of at our life party. Unhappy and un-intact intestines are a fast track to depression, energy loss, libido problems, sleep dysregulation, and challenged focus and memory. If we have too little serotonin, the world looks depressing and these days we don’t need extra convincing that these ARE trying times. But if you knew that getting your digestion up to speed was a foundational must to improved mental health and a better chance at dealing with life after watching CNN for 10 minutes, you might pay more attention to those intestines and how they could up their game. Now you know!

Welcome to The Well Spell

I used to have a blog.  It was about the subliminal power of red lipstick, fashion and things that made me feel good. It’s funny because considering that since the age of 18 to the unexpectedly youthful age of 44 my “In Real Life” life has been about health. I wasn’t always making the best decisions or ultimately serving my health through all my efforts, but in all my education and jobs up to and including becoming a mother, health and wellness were the primary theme. When deciding to attempt to become parents – itself 5 epic blog posts – we took a month to eat “super foods” and optimize our bodies to give me the best chance of conceiving as I was almost 34 at the time and received constant warnings of my approaching “advanced maternal age.”  Six weeks later our optimization showed up on a plastic stick. Two years later I may as well have opened an organic baby food company considering the amount of time I spent macerating artichoke hearts and black cherries into baby culinary masterpieces on 3 hours of sleep.

So anyway, during that transitional time of my life as I tried to put myself together after such a large life change, I spent a year blogging about what I put ON my body and WHERE my body travelled on luxurious vacations (Tahiti, England, Scotland and Maui that year) and barely touched on what I put IN my body, or how I managed the incredibly stressful events of my life at that time like raising a baby and suddenly losing my mother to cancer. I didn’t talk about how my beloved husband’s job as a film and television producer kept me living in a city that depressed me and only worsened a focus on weight-loss and dress size that was a theme for far longer than I would like to admit. Writing had been a kind of therapy for a long time, but that blog started in my voice and morphed into the person I thought I was supposed to be until she became so unfamiliar I just stopped out of the blue.

Ironically, this blog will probably feature lipstick sometimes along with all the recipes for things that help reduce inflammation, promote good digestion and improve your mood. That’s because these days all my lipstick is made naturally and I still love a bold red lip (and all make-up – I won’t lie.) With the battles my body has fought in recent years, decreasing my overall toxic load by changing all my makeup and self-care products to non-toxic options became a big part of my “well spell.”

The Well Spell will describe how a woman living in these crazy times might fall into extreme adrenal exhaustion from pairing strenuous workouts with under-eating “just for a little while”  and then wondering why her body can’t stay asleep or heal and how you could look 10 years younger than you are but feel 75 when the joint pain and nerve issues join the auto-immune dysfunction party you didn’t know you were invited to.

It’s about how quick fixes, medicine not prevention and failing to face the hard and scary parts of our past and present show themselves in our imbalanced health and wellbeing. It’s about truly feeling good being the new looking good and about finding what fellow NTP (Nutritional Therapy Practitioner) and author Daniele Della Valle describes in her book “Happy Weight” which BINGO – has nothing to do with the vaguely arrived at number floating in your head where things will get “happy.”

I am a truth teller, a cook, a healer, a writer, a life partner, a mother, and a critic of Standard American Diet and pretty much Standard American anything.  I was a long time professional women’s health advocate, went to grad school for public health with a major in community health education and have had a practice as a massage therapist and Reiki practitioner.  I have a pretty magical significant other that supports all my endeavors and admittedly this has played a huge role in my wellness evolution, a process that keeps on changing but never really ends.

I believe that holistic nutritionists are not just super skinny, 26-year-old white women wearing impossibly white yoga clothes (though I love and learn from them too!) Sometimes they look and sound like me. [Full disclosure, I am like the middle-aged Rihanna of holistic health practitioners and look different all the time because that’s just how I roll] yet I digress. Holistic nutritionists can have had and still manage disordered eating patterns and they too can feel overwhelmed, confused and unhealed. But at the end of the day I’m hoping that MY realness, MY accumulated knowledge, MY recipes and MY recommendations can help YOU find some more wellness of your own and inspire you to find what you need for your own magic prescription.

So welcome to The Well Spell. I’ll be the one in the non-toxic red lipstick (Bite Amuse Bouche Limited Edition in Aries at press time) who is contemplating ways to make a dinner with none of her favorite comfort foods that will still give her comfort. Sound intriguing? Then follow along.