Sabertooth Tigers and Starbucks: Cortisol Cometh’

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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.

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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.