Did you know that cortisol hormone levels can have a significant impact on your health and wellbeing by influencing both the way your other hormones e.g. oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, are produced and metabolised?
Cortisol levels are generally driven by our brain’s stress response as a part of the Hypothalamic/Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) axis.
Originally designed to be of short duration to give us a quick burst of adrenaline to escape from danger (lions and tigers and bears – oh my!), these days our stress response is often in a constant state of overload from work, family and lifestyle commitments.
This puts our HPA axis into overdrive and we find it harder to maintain quality sleep, get grumpy and tired, find that it gets harder to lose weight, are injured more easily when exercising or playing sports and find it harder to fight off or recover from illnesses and strenuous exercise. As time moves on the body can struggle to make enough cortisol hormones through its normal pathways, so it starts diverting the progesterone and testosterone precursor hormone to try and make cortisol in what is called the “pregnenolone steal”. This can be tragic for people trying to become pregnant as it can lead to fertility issues for both men and women. It can also lead to oestrogen dominance in women since there is a reduced amount of progesterone to balance out oestrogen putting us at risk of PMS, fibroids and oestrogen driven cancers. The extra hormonal complication for women is what makes it harder for us to lose weight.
And even the blokes can’t escape from this one! Cortisol mobilises fat stores in the body to become belly fat in both women and men. Constant stress also puts us at risk of systemic inflammation which increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancers. We have all heard of people burning out and many will have heard of adrenal fatigue syndrome that occurs as a result of too much stress.
Stress does not even need to be real to have an impact – just imagining or anticipating a situation is enough to elicit a stress response.
Here are some simple things that you can do about it before you get to the point that you cannot raise enough energy to even get out of bed:
A quick disclaimer before we begin – this is purely from my own perspective! I have mentioned some people below who have been of influence to me in some way and who I believe to be key to this story. Just because I have mentioned them does not mean I am endorsing them. I am likely to have missed some important figures out, so please forgive me if I have missed one of your favourites. Perhaps add a comment with why you think they should be included?
Many of us grew up, and had our views instilled about healthy eating during the Keysian era. The Seven Countries Study, which was started in the 1950’s and is famously attributed to Ancel Keys, proposed the Lipid Hypothesis which, put simply, attributes the cause of heart disease to high levels of lipids in the blood which was theoretically affected by the amount of saturated fats people eat.
In the 1970’s we saw the rise of the food pyramid, variations of which also demonised fats and recommended increasing the amounts of whole grains that people eat. There is plenty of information on the internet about how this came about – follow the money from lobbyists etc, but I won’t go into this here.
Suddenly many of the foods that people had eaten for generations were now considered not just bad for us but down right evil. With the iconic cover of Time Magazine in March 1984, bacon and eggs became a “heartattackonaplate”. We were advised to switch butter for table spreads and margarine, as much fat was trimmed from meat as possible and it was recommended that vegetable oils should be used to cook with – but only when necessary. This spawned the rise of the non-stick fry pan along with its non-stick utensil cousins and the breeding of heavy-breasted chickens and “trim” pork.