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The Cortisol Connection: Managing Stress in a Season of Panic
Stress can be defined as a state of mental, physical or emotional tension resulting from an adverse or demanding environment. High stress levels are linked to an excess of the hormone cortisol, which can negatively affect the mind and body. In “The Cortisol Connection,” Shawn Talbot describes how stress (“how you feel when life’s demands exceed your ability to meet them”) can lead to excessively elevated cortisol levels in the blood. Unless the amount of this hormone is controlled, there is little point in dieting or exercising to prevent weight gain and disease. This book describes ways to lower cortisol to levels appropriate for your health.
Physiology of Stress
Stress is the body’s way of responding to a threat. Fearful experiences or perceived threats to safety, status, or well-being trigger the release of a complex cocktail of hormones into the bloodstream that puts the body into “fight or flight” mode. Symptoms of stress include anxiety, irritability, insomnia, digestive problems, and depression. Additionally, excessive stress suppresses the immune system, increasing vulnerability to disease; and shuts down the brain, leading to difficulty concentrating and poor decision-making. Cortisol is one of the most important stress-related hormones, acting on the brain to control mood, motivation and fear. At normal levels, it has beneficial effects, but when levels are too high, it can lead to unhealthy weight gain, high blood pressure and immune system deficiencies.
Cortisol can and does play an active role in everyday life. In moderation, it regulates alertness, relaxation, and activity levels, and the act of waking from sleep each day is followed by a rise in cortisol levels, providing energy for the day’s needs, while another rise in the late afternoon provides Second Wind. Short-term spikes in cortisol levels can also occur in response to experiences that are considered exciting and fun, such as rock climbing by an adult or a child anticipating a birthday present. The boost in brainpower is why many people work better under stress, and it also promotes resilience, at least temporarily, boosting immunity to pathogens.
Chronic Stress: Causes and Consequences
The causes of chronic (persistent) stress are diverse and highly individual: One person’s stressor may be another’s relaxant. However, some fairly common triggers of negative stress include bereavement, job loss, and lack of sleep. A body that is chronically stressed produces higher than normal levels of cortisol, which adds to the problem of excess weight with other burdens in life. Additionally, fat gained from cortisol-induced stress tends to accumulate around the abdomen and has been linked to the development of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. But it doesn’t end there: Cortisol secretion increases with age, which explains why most people get fatter as they age, and why people with high levels of stress outperform those with relatively low levels of stress. It’s harder to lose weight, even while exercising. All in all, high cortisol levels not only cause disease and accelerated aging, but also act directly on the brain, increasing forgetfulness and accelerating the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Therefore, the best chance of combating weight gain and health problems appears to lie in minimizing or better yet eliminating the stress triggers that lead to an excessive increase in cortisol in the first place. It turns out that the negative effects of chronic stress can be reversed (even for nearly 100-year-olds) with stress-reducing measures, regular exercise, and optimal nutrition. In an ideal world, everyone would sleep at least eight hours a night, have a short commute, work up to seven hours a day, and have plenty of free time. However, for those living in the real world, the authors present this book as a handbook to help them successfully navigate stressful situations and enter a state of ongoing wellness.
Chronic Stress Remedies
The production of this book involved a great deal of research, as can be seen from the range and variety of its references, which include 15 books and nearly 300 journal articles cited at publication – a useful compendium in itself. There are sections devoted to supplements that produce various effects: stress adaptation, cortisol control, metabolism, and relaxation. Common dietary supplements to avoid are also listed, with their long-term negative effects clearly explained. The appendix contains a daily meal plan and an exhaustive bibliography. Unfortunately, however, the authors place more emphasis on the role of supplements than nutrition and exercise.
The role of food
One problem with food supplements is that it strays from nature: food should be eaten in its natural environment, where various nutrients can interact in ways that are best for good health. One orange, for example, provides about 70 mg of vitamin C, but this vitamin is embedded in a matrix of fiber that helps maintain gut health, and also contains vitamin A, some B vitamins, and the minerals calcium and magnesium—with the small amounts needed to start of energy (about 50 calories). Standard vitamin C supplements provide only a large excess (often 1,000 mg) of the vitamin; no fiber; and various fillers, sweeteners, binders, and other potentially harmful additives. Numerous studies, including a recent randomized controlled trial, have shown that positive changes in diet alone can be effective in improving mental health, even in the presence of clinically diagnosed depression. The effects are even more dramatic when regular exercise is combined with dietary changes.
We all know that good health can be achieved by eating right, exercising more and stressing less. The Cortisol Connection describes ways to fine-tune your physical and mental health by lowering your cortisol levels. Written in a language that can be understood by a layman, it documents numerous cases of positive results from the use of cortisol-lowering supplements. Research continues to show that most people can effectively lower cortisol and stress levels without running out of money by eating the right types and amounts of foods. Still, in today’s world of increasing uncertainty and vulnerability at work, at home, and in social interactions, this book may provide useful guidance for managing any ensuing stress.
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