The Biochemistry of Stress (Cortisol)

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

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Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

The Biochemistry of Stress
In research circles, the response of a zebra facing a possible attack by a lion is used as a standard example to explain stress physiology. In this example, the zebra represents you, and the lion represents your stress. If you were to face a charging lion, your body would quickly pace itself through a series of neurological, biochemical, hormonal, and physiological actions. These actions are labeled with a term you’ve probably heard: the “fight-or-flight” response. Each response mechanism within your body is designed to help you run away from the lion—that is, to take flight—or engage it in battle—to fight (and, you hope, to survive for another day).
For zebras, the stress response runs its complete course, from start to finish, in a relatively short period of time. When the zebra experiences a stressor, such as the lion charging, its brain and hormone system release a series of stress hormones. This stress response enables the zebra to fight off the lion or run away from it. That is the classic “fight-or-flight” response. After getting away from the lion, the zebra’s stress hormones return to normal. The zebra goes on to live happily and healthily ever after—at least until the next lion shows up. Most importantly, the entire process, from the point when the zebra sees the lion until its hormones return to normal, takes perhaps sixty seconds from start to finish. This short episode, and the zebra’s response to it, is a perfect example of what researchers refer to as “acute stress” or “temporary stress.” This is the type of stress that gets you up and going and to which you can adapt very nicely because it is over so quickly. Think about jumping out of the way of a bicyclist while walking in the city or dropping a cooking spoon that has become too hot from sitting next to the stove—these are examples of “temporary-stress” responses, because your body quickly reacts and just as quickly recovers.

Unfortunately for humans, many of the things that cause stress today are hard to fight off and almost impossible to run away from—unlike the zebra who can flee from the lion. Stressors come in the form of monthly mortgage payments, credit-card bills, project deadlines, traffic jams, family commitments, and myriad other pressures. Worse, these stressors seem to keep coming back again and again, making them anything but “acute,” temporary, or short-term in nature. As a result, many people are in the position of being chronically “stuck” midway through the normal, temporary-stress response cycle. Because this response cycle does not have an opportunity to run its course to a natural conclusion (as it does for the zebra), people’s stress hormones remain continuously elevated. The ongoing elevation of these hormones slowly leads people down the path to low vigor and toward poor long-term health.

What happens to the biochemistry of your body when you experience stress? Essentially, stress makes your cortisol levels go up. And just what is cortisol? Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress. It is often called the primary “stress hormone,” but it also shows up under the names “cortisone” or “hydrocortisone.” Cortisol, basically, allows the body to maintain normal physiological processes during times of stress. In other words, without cortisol, the body would be incapable of dealing with stress effectively. Without cortisol, that lion charging at you from the bushes would cause you to do little more than to wet your pants and stand there staring. By contrast, when the body metabolizes cortisol effectively, you’re primed to run away or to do battle, because cortisol secretion releases amino acids (from muscle), glucose (from the liver), and fatty acids (from adipose tissue) into the bloodstream for use as energy. Given these benefits, it might seem safe to assume that cortisol is “good”—right? The answer is yes—and no.

On the plus side, not only does the body produce cortisol to help people respond to stress, but synthetic forms of this hormone (such as prednisone and dexamethasone) are also used to treat a wide variety of conditions because of their anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing properties. In addition, anyone who has dealt with poison ivy or similar conditions knows that cortisol-like drugs can be quite helpful in relieving the itching or excessive inflammation that accompanies certain skin disorders. These drugs are also useful during organ transplantation and in the treatment of inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, colitis, or asthma. And for people with Addison’s disease who have lost function of their adrenal glands, cortisol-like drugs play a role in replacement-therapy regimens.

So, again, it would seem that cortisol is a “good thing”—right? Yes, but only at certain levels and for a certain period of time. When your body produces too much cortisol for too long a period of time, this can affect your health in negative ways and leave you in a situation where stress eventually leads to feeling “stressed out,” which then leads to low vigor and burnout.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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