Stress Hormones in Action

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.

Stress Hormones in Action
When you encounter anything that causes you to feel stress, your cortisol levels go up. If you experience stressful events on a regular basis and are unable to effectively rid yourself of the stressor, then your cortisol levels stay constantly elevated. The elevation of cortisol leads to further problems with biochemical balance, such as reduced testosterone and interference with other hormones (such as insulin and thyroid hormones).

This process can be compared to what happens with a line of dominoes, where tipping one hormone off balance (cortisol) leads to a disruption in the next (testosterone) and the next (insulin) and the next (serotonin) and the next (thyroid) and so on, until eventually the balance of your entire system is upset and you feel terrible. Also lined up like dominoes are the other Pillars of Health, where cortisol excess increases levels of inflammatory cytokines, oxidative free radicals, and glycating sugars. This increase in stress-induced oxidation/inflammation is due, in part, to the fact that excess cortisol stimulates a chronic immune response that is accompanied by a “respiratory burst” from macrophages and related cells. And this response is also partly due to the increased creation of AGEs (advanced glycation end products) that is triggered by the cortisol-induced elevations in blood sugar.

Elevated cortisol levels are also associated with reduced levels of testosterone and IGF-1 in subjects exposed to high stress. (IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor 1, is related to growth hormone.) Because testosterone and IGF-1 are anabolic, or muscle-building, hormones, the research subjects exposed to high stress also tended to have reduced muscle mass and higher body-fat levels. And they also tended to have a higher body mass index (BMI), a higher waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), and abdominal obesity (an “apple” shape). Researchers at the Neurological Institute at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) have linked excessive cortisol levels to depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as to direct changes in brain structure (atrophy) leading to cognitive defects—meaning that cortisol can shrink and kill brain cells. All this research points to a consistent reproducible finding—that chronic stress leads to biochemical/hormonal/metabolic disruptions that put the body in a state of accelerated “breakdown” in tissues throughout it, including the brain, heart, blood vessels, muscles, bones, immune-system cells, etc. At the same time, these disruptions also suppress the “buildup” of healthy tissues, because chronic stress retards tissue growth—except for abdominal fat!

Scientific research and medical evidence clearly show that a sustained high level of cortisol—triggered by chronic unrelenting stress and leading to a cascade of further biochemical disruptions—has debilitating effects on long-term health. Among these many effects is an increase in appetite and cravings for certain foods, especially sweets.

Because one of the primary roles of cortisol is to encourage the body to refuel itself after responding to a stressor, an elevated cortisol level keeps your appetite ramped up, so you constantly feel hungry. In addition, the type of fat that accumulates as a result of this stress-induced appetite will typically locate itself in the abdominal region of the body (probably so it is readily available for release during the next stress response).

The major problem with abdominal fat, aside from the fact that nobody wants a pot belly, is that this type of fat is also highly associated with increased cellular damage from glycating sugars, oxidative free radicals, and inflammatory cytokines, all of which increase the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

So now you have a bit of appreciation for the challenges to biochemical balance that chronic stress causes in the body. When cortisol goes up or its normal rhythm is disrupted, a cascade of biochemical events is set into motion that disrupts other hormones, including testosterone, insulin, thyroid, and many others. Elevated cortisol also unbalances the ratio between various neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and others) and other metabolic proteins (such as cytokines, which are involved in inflammation).

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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