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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 strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. High stress levels are linked with excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol, which can induce negative mental and physical effects. In “The Cortisol Connection,” Shawn Talbot describes how stress (“what you feel when life’s demands exceed your ability to meet those demands”) can cause blood levels of cortisol to rise excessively. Unless amounts of this hormone are brought under control, there is little point in dieting or exercising to prevent weight gain and disease. The book describes ways of lowering cortisol to levels compatible with excellent health.
The Physiology of Stress
Stress is the body’s way of responding to threat. The experience of fear or a perceived threat to safety, status, or well-being triggers the release of a complex hormonal mix into the bloodstream, which switches the body into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Stress symptoms include anxiety, irritability, insomnia, digestion problems and depression. In addition, excessive stress quenches the immune system, increasing vulnerability to disease; and shuts down the brain, leading to difficulty concentrating and to 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 exerts beneficial effects, but when levels become too high it can cause unhealthy weight gain, high blood pressure and immune system deficiencies.
Cortisol can and does play a positive role in everyday life. In moderate amounts, it regulates alertness, relaxation and activity levels, The daily act of waking up from sleep is closely followed by a boost in cortisol levels to provide energy for the demands of the day, while another boost in the late afternoon provides second wind. Short-term surges in cortisol levels also occur in response to experiences perceived as exciting and fun, such as rock-climbing in adults or the anticipation of birthday presents in children. A boost in brainpower is the reason many people work better under stress, which also promotes resilience and, at least temporarily, increases immunity to pathogens.
Chronic Stress: causes and consequences
The causes of chronic (ongoing) stress are varied and highly individual: one person’s stressor could be another’s relaxant. However, some fairly universal triggers of negative stress are bereavement, unemployment and sleep deprivation. A chronically stressed body produces higher cortisol levels than normal, which adds the problem of overweight to life’s other burdens. Furthermore, the fat gained with cortisol-induced stress tends to accumulate around the abdomen, and is linked with the development of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But it does not end there: cortisol secretion increases with age, explaining why most people grow fatter with the years, and why people with high stress levels are less able to lose weight than relatively unstressed individuals, even when exercising. To cap it all, excessive levels of cortisol can not only cause disease and speed up ageing but can also act on the brain directly, increasing forgetfulness and accelerating the development of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
Thus, the best chance of combating weight gain and health problems appears to lie in minimising or, better still, eliminating stress triggers that cause the immoderate cortisol increases in the first place. It turns out that the negative effects of chronic stress can be reversed (even in people nearly 100 years old) through stress-lowering practices, regular exercise and optimal nutrition. In an ideal world, everyone would sleep at least eight hours per night, have only a brief work commute, spend a maximum of seven hours a day working and have plenty of free time. For those who live in the real world, however, the author offers this book as a manual for navigating successfully through stressful situations into an ongoing state of good health.
Remedies for chronic stress
That a lot of research went into the production of this book is evidenced by the extent and variety of its references, which include 15 books and almost 300 journal article citations current at the time of publication – a useful compendium in its own right. There are chapters dedicated to supplements that produce a variety of effects: stress adaptation, cortisol control, metabolism and relaxation. Common dietary supplements to avoid are also listed, with clear explanations of their negative long-term effects. The appendix contains daily food plans, and an extensive bibliography. It is unfortunate, however, that the author lays more emphasis on the role of supplements than on those of nutrition and exercise.
The role of food
One problem with food supplementation is its deviation from nature: food is meant to be consumed in its natural milieu, where the various nutrients can interact in ways best fitted for good health. An orange, for example, provides about 70 milligrams of vitamin C, but this vitamin is embedded in a matrix of fibre that helps maintain bowel health, and also contains vitamin A, some B vitamins, and the minerals calcium and magnesium – with a small dose of energy (about 50 calories) to boot. The standard vitamin C supplement provides an overwhelming excess (usually 1000 mg) of that vitamin alone; no fibre; and a variety of fillers, sweeteners, binders and other potentially harmful additives. Many studies, including a recent randomised controlled trial, have shown that positive changes in diet alone can effectively improve mental health even in cases of clinically diagnosed depression. When regular exercise is added to the dietary changes, results are even more spectacular.
It is well-known that good health is achievable through eating right, exercising more and stressing less. The Cortisol Connection describes ways of fine-tuning mental as well as physical health by lowering cortisol levels. Written in language accessible to the layperson, it documents numerous cases of positive results from cortisol-lowering supplements. Studies continue to demonstrate that most people can lower cortisol and stress levels effectively by consuming food of the right type and in the right quantities, without breaking the bank. Still, in these days of increased uncertainty and vulnerability over work, family and social interactions, this book may offer useful guidance on managing any attendant stress.
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