Balancing Biochemistry and Building Vigor

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.

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

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.

Balancing Biochemistry and Building Vigor
When measuring the state of their health through lab tests, people often want to bring their “numbers” down. For instance, they may strive to lower their cholesterol or to lower high blood-pressure readings. But when it comes to the subject of stress, the goal is not simply to lower cortisol levels. In fact, many stress physiologists believe that it is not the absolute level of cortisol people are exposed to but their degrees of cortisol variability that indicate a healthy stress response. In other words, people should aim to have neither high cortisol nor low cortisol but instead a cortisol level that fluctuates normally in response to stress and relaxation. Chronically high cortisol is bad, and chronically low cortisol is also bad—but “flat” levels that show little to no fluctuation seem to be just as bad as either extreme, because they lead to problems with biochemical balance and to adverse changes in other hormones farther “downstream” in the metabolic cascade.

Ideally, cortisol levels should rise and fall in a rhythm that is responsive and variable. That variability means cortisol levels should remain low at night and when you are relaxed, but climb during periods of acute stress, exercise, and work deadlines, recovering to lower baseline levels quickly. We do not want cortisol to stay at any one level “chronically,” whether high, low, or medium. Rather, we want cortisol flux. We want a highly responsive, finely tuned pattern of cortisol activity. In stress research, then, the emphasis on measuring whether cortisol levels are “high” or “low” has shifted. Instead, researchers want to know how those levels fluctuate over time, how they are balanced with other aspects of biochemistry, and what people’s overall twenty-four-hour exposure may be to cortisol and to a growing collection of other hormones, enzymes, cytokines, and neurotransmitters.

The importance of having fluctuating cortisol levels cannot be overstated. In fact, a pattern of “flat” cortisol rhythm is one indicator of stress overload. A “flat” reading means that cortisol levels may be within ranges that might be labeled “normal,” but they do not appear to increase in response to stress or to fall during periods of relaxation. As a result, the body is constantly exposed to “moderate” levels of cortisol on a twenty-four-hour basis. Such exposures can lead to the worst-case scenarios for long-term health. For example, people with chronic-stress diseases, such as vital exhaustion (burnout), chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia, are known to exhibit a “flat” cortisol rhythm, as are sufferers of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and children who have suffered physical abuse. According to German researchers, when cortisol rhythms become flattened, an enzyme inside abdominal fat cells (called “HSD,” for hydroxy-steroid-dehydrogenase) kicks into overdrive to increase cortisol levels—and cortisol is a potent trigger for fat storage in those same belly-fat cells. As you can imagine, when the HSD increases cortisol levels, the cortisol, in turn, increases fat storage in the belly. And all that hormonal activity takes place in the abdominal region, even if the rest of the body contains cortisol in the “normal” range.

When chronic stress disrupts your healthy fluctuation of cortisol levels, it often leaves you feeling fatigued during the day (when you should feel energized) and restless at night (when you want to be relaxed). A “flattened” cortisol rhythm also sets off a cascade of detrimental alterations in other aspects of biochemical balance, including elevations in oxidative free radicals, inflammatory cytokines, and sugars associated with glycation (all covered in more detail in Part II).

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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