I was pretty rough on cortisol in my last post. It is not that cortisol is a villain, on the contrary, it is an essential hormone that keeps our keel even; what makes it problematic is our abuse of it. Cortisol is meant to save our skin under dire circumstances; episodes which should be occasional and short lived. What make it seem like a greedy thief—sex hormones are “stolen” to make more of it—is when cortisol is called to action more frequently and for longer durations; all too common in today’s “stress out” world.
Chronic exposure to high cortisol leads to bodily insults and, like a burn from a flame, the more prolonged the exposure, the greater the damage. Beyond the hampering of sex hormone production and the potential for increased belly fat, the effects are far reaching. We know that the heightened response of the cortisol driven fight or flight is made possible, in part, by the downshift of body systems that are not essential during an actual or assumed time of crisis. Digestion and immunity get their dial’s turned down, and they are certainly two systems that you do not want suppressed long term.
The area of the brain responsible for thought processing, related to memory and much of learning, takes a substantial hit with prolonged cortisol exposure as well. The hippocampus is where essential neural connections are constructed and it is one of the few areas where new brain cells can form. Chronic cortisol blocks this process and is a toxin to the existing neurons causing the hippocampus to shrink. This is also one of the first areas of the brain damaged by Alzheimer’s.
To make the connection between high cortisol and chronic disease, one needs only to think about what is “turned on” during fight or flight and imagine if it stayed “turned on.” Heart rate is certainly elevated during an emergency, as is blood pressure, too much of both will eventually take a toll on the cardiovascular system. High levels of blood sugar (glucose), released as emergency fuel, demand high levels of insulin to shuttle glucose from the blood to cells. Prolong this effect and cells become desensitized (resistant) to insulin and glucose gets stuck in the blood, and adding insult to injury, cortisol has an additional blocking effect on insulin. The high blood glucose takes a toll on blood vessel walls and cells become sugar coated (glycation), forming toxic compounds and inflammation.
It is not hard to figure out where this is all leading—heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s, depressed immunity, gut dysfunction as well as hormonal dysregulation (including thyroid). This hot mess can leave us scarred and running on fumes. Luckily, many of these effects can be halted and even reversed with the removal of the offending stressors. Down regulated body systems can be upregulated, the withering effects on the hippocampus has the potential for regeneration, and the development or advancement of chronic diseases can be stopped and in many cases reversed. Everything from how we react to life’s difficulties to how we eat and sleep impact our exposure to cortisol, and extinguishing chronic stress, no matter the source, is our best protection against getting burned.
- Have orgasmic experiences! Hormones produced in response to orgasm counter cortisol and boost sex hormone production! Along the same lines, any activity that takes our breath away—in a good way—can impact cortisol.
- Take ashwagandha! As an adaptogenic herb, ashwagandha has a balancing effect on the body. It acts as a cortisol normalizer and also positively impacts cognition and thyroid function. Unlike most supplements I take, ashwagandha’s effect is noticeable soon after ingestion. It really helps with my sleep. Himalaya Herbal Healthcare is the brand I prefer. I lay out 1 standardized caplet on my nightstand and take it whenever I wake during the night–a common sign of wonky cortisol. It can also be taken at high stress times during the day.
Preheat oven to 425. Scatter asparagus in a glass baking pan (or the equivalent), cover with nitrate-free bacon, cook until done. That is it! There is no need to grease the pan or season the asparagus—the bacon does both.
Taking advantage of the hot oven, alongside the bacon-ed asparagus I will also cook some whole sweet potatoes and maybe chicken thighs or sausage links.
Just think when you take steps to decrease cortisol you are also taking steps to become a #BetterFatBurner! Remember to follow me socially for daily inspiration.