Two weeks ago, in the E newsletter entitled: Tale of Two Hormones: Part I, I reviewed the hormone Insulin and how it’s inappropriate and excessive production creates havoc on our bodies. This turmoil could include systemic inflammation, increased body fat, and the eventual evolution into disease in some form or fashion including diabetes and heart disease.
It truly is one of the most dangerous hormones to have surging through our bodies on a continual basis.
I also mentioned that we have a great deal of control over its production.
Today, I’ll introduce another hormone that when frequently or chronically elevated causes an equivalent, albeit different, destruction on our bodies, our health, and aging process.
The hormone I allude to, under normal conditions, is mainly produced during times of high stress. It serves as one our ‘fight or flight’ hormones protecting us by mobilizing massive energy resources if we are threatened physically or emotionally.
It also varies diurnally, meaning with sleep wake cycles. Under normal conditions, large amounts are produced early in the morning, slowly trailing off during the day and is at its lowest between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.
Most of us inherently know that stress ages us. When those gray hairs start showing up, one of the first comments you hear are “It must be those kids” or “why are you working so hard!” (Yes, I’ve been on the receiving end myself!)
My response typically is to whine like a 12-year-old girl, “It’s genetic, leave me alone!”(And it is… mostly!).
It’s really more than that though. Our skin becomes thin and often loses it elasticity and color. Loss of subcutaneous fat and muscle around our eyes, cheeks, and mouth accelerates the appearance of aging.
Most of us can see it in our own lives. The relative, friend, or colleague known for ‘burning the candle at both ends’ typically shows these early signs of aging. To view images of an American president before and after their presidencies leaves no doubt that this is the case.
Reasons why this occurs are well documented (Chronic stress is high on the list.)
The hormone to which I am eluding is Cortisol.
Remember that I would not be bring this to your attention if cortisol could not be measured (urine, saliva, blood) or if we did not have some control over its production.
Let’s dive into why that occurs by examining what Cortisol does in our bodies under normal conditions.
Under normal physiologic conditions, Cortisol rises in the morning and actually helps us wake up.
Its rise serves as a signal to shut off another hormone, Melatonin (the sleep hormone), allowing us to rise from our early morning slumber. (This is why chronic or inappropriate elevation of Cortisol leads to sleep problems.)
Typically, Cortisol will slowly trail off throughout the day eventually falling below a certain threshold, which serves as another trigger for Melatonin production (leading to another night’s rest).
Again…under normal conditions.
I say that because the normal is rarely the norm in today’s stressful, nutritionally depleted, and toxic environment.
(As a side note, individuals with trouble going to sleep, staying asleep, or waking up most likely have some level of cortisol dysfunction).
The innate ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism with which I refer is meant to protect us and mobilize energy resources for immediate use. These energy resources are in the form of blood sugar (glucose), amino acids, and fatty acids.
Unfortunately, for most of us, that system is over-activated.
So what happens when cortisol is released during stress?
Typically, in an acute stressful situation, glycogen (the storage form of blood sugar) is broken down into glucose (blood sugar) to provide immediate resources for the production of energy.
The energy (from the processing of the glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids) is typically in the form of a molecule called ATP.
ATP is produced in every cell and tissue in our body.
More importantly, ATP is used in every reaction in our body including that which allows the proper function of our brains, muscles, heart and even our immune system.
This process allows maximal utilization of resources for a ‘fight or flight’ situation.
To our health detriment, with today’s modern day stressful lives, Cortisol is constantly elevated and ATP is chronically depleted(causing fatigue) by having to restock stores of glycogen, muscle and fat..
The constant barrage of Cortisol creates hormonal chaos that leads initially to subtle symptoms but eventually contributes to disease.
Common signs and symptoms that may indicate cortisol dysfunction include:
* Excess body fat, especially around the abdomen, chest, and neck.
* Fatigue, weakness or loss of muscle mass in the extremities.
*Thin unhealthy aging skin.
*Lack of sex drive
*Depressed thoughts and mood
*Trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or early rise.
*Elevated blood pressure.
*Hypoglycemia or ‘sugar drops’.
I mentioned previously that Insulin was an anabolic or ‘building’ hormone. Quite the opposite, Cortisol is a Catabolic or ‘breakdown’ hormone.
To make a situation worse, they often work in conjunction to destroy health.
Not unlike a vehicle with 32 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg in the city. All the starting and stopping certainly has negative effects on not only your vehicles fuel efficiency, but also on its longevity.
So too is the case with Cortisol and Insulin.
The only difference being we can go buy another car…
Now we can’t always change our environment, but we can change how our body responds.
If the clinical picture fits, my first recommendation is to get a timed cortisol test at four points throughout a twenty-four hour period. This provides the broadest picture of what is going on in accordance with the history and exam.
The biotechnology company Sanesco International provides a urine/saliva test that measures the cortisol levels as well as DHEA, Serotonin, GABA, and several other neurotransmitters that can provide an excellent picture of the problem.
Subsequent recommendations typically depend on the particular situation and results but often include specific amino acids, vitamins, and cofactors that serve as adaptogens. Other helpful tools such as biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and/or attempts to alter the stressors themselves should also be considered and can be very effective.
To your health,
Brian E. Lamkin D.O.