The fight or flight human stress system has insured human survival on earth for tens of thousands of yeashutterstock_189943862rs; yet in modern times this powerful system is killing us through stress related diseases. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors ran from danger with the help of cortisol and adrenaline, while we modern “hunters” worry about an endless stream of imaginary dangers while sitting on the sofa or driving the car. All the while cortisol is doing its job of preparing us to run or fight, even though neither is appropriate for our modern “dangers.” For us, “fight or flight” has become “anger or fear,” or, more commonly, worry, anxiety, apprehension, frustration, guilt (anger at self) and resentment.  Unless you can stop worrying about money, the kids, work problems, or, feeling frustrated about traffic and busy schedules, you need to understand the effects of cortisol and why it is considered by some to be the death hormone. Since the purpose of cortisol is to prepare you to run from your “danger,” the following things happen in your body with acute stress:
  • Sugar, protein and fat are released into your blood to provide fuel for your muscles as you flee,
  • Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase to deliver these energy nutrients and oxygen to all parts of your body,
  • Your body stops long term projects, such as immunity, digestion and hormone production, in favor of short term survival.  As Dr. Sapolsky aptly states in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “you don’t paint the garage when there is a tornado coming down your street”.   In other words, digestion is inhibited, sex hormone production is reduced and your immune system declines.
I have talked to thousands of patients over the years and most of them cannot imagine living without worry.  We live in the Age of Stress and our bodies are not designed for it.  Cortisol is the molecular messenger that tells every cell in your body you are in danger. Research has shown that cortisol levels in the blood steadily increase as we get older.  The average 50 year old has 17 times as much cortisol in his or her blood at bedtime as the average teenager.  It is difficult to sleep when you are in danger. Unless you live in Baghdad, Somalia, or the ghettos of an American city, the vast majority of your stress comes from your mind – what you think about day after day. As Eckhart Tolle writes in his remarkable book, The Power of Now, we are all afflicted with “thinking disease.” We worry about what may go wrong in the future, or, we feel resentment, guilt or frustration about what did go wrong in the past. Your body cannot distinguish the difference between a man pointing a gun at you in a dark alley, and your worried thoughts about financial problems.  So it is important for you to understand what excessive cortisol is doing to your body. Consider the following effects of high cortisol over time:
  • Increased appetite and food cravings
  • Increased body fat, especially in the abdomen
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Decreased bone density, or, osteoporosis
  • Increased cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Increased depression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased sex drive and sexual performance
  • Weakened immunity and increased infections
  • Memory and learning impairment
  • Increased symptoms of PMS
  • Increased menopausal side effects such as hot flashes and night sweats
It is easy to see how these powerful and recurrent changes in the body can contribute over time to a range of diseases, including:
  • Obesity
  • Coronary artery disease – angina and heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance and eventually diabetes
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Alzheimer’s disease due to shrinkage, or, atrophy of brain cells
  • Osteoporosis due to accelerated bone breakdown
  • Erectile dysfunction and loss of libido, or sex drive
  • Recurrent infections due to impaired immunity
  • Mild cognitive impairment with poor focus, concentration and memory
  • Cancer
The epidemic of chronic disease in our society is in great part due to the enormous stress that we create for ourselves day after day. There is no magic bullet from the drug companies that will take it away.   shutterstock_337999448We often delete exercise from our busy schedules.  Then add in the effects our high carbohydrate, mineral depleted, processed and refined diet and our risk for disease goes higher. It is up to you to heed the messages from your body and make the changes needed to be healthy in the long run. Research has shown that the following three blood tests correlate with long term health and well being: 1. Fasting blood glucose 2. Cortisol levels (8 am) 3. DHEA You need to know these test results and do what is needed to bring them into optimal levels. In doing so you are more likely to stay health, or treat your disease, in the future. Heart Rate Variability testing is another important tool for understanding the impact of stress on your mind and body.  It is the only objective measure of stress in the body.  HRV changes also predict the development of chronic diseases.   diagnotics and lab testing-01