My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.
Chapter 5 – Pillars of Health
Human beings were simply not meant to “carry around” constant disturbances in their stress response to the point that this response reaches the state called “chronic stress.” Humans were built to respond to stress quickly and then to have stress hormones dissipate immediately. That is the “acute-stress” response or “temporary” stress, and our bodies do perfectly well when stress comes in periodic bursts, but also goes away or subsides periodically giving us time to recover and adapt. When the body is exposed to wave after wave of chronic stress from the modern lifestyle, it begins to break down.
Animals don’t normally harbor chronic stress the way humans do, but when they do (during stress experiments, starvation, injury, etc.), they get sick just like humans do. In study after study, it quickly becomes obvious that the stress response, although helpful in certain situations, turns negative when the body begins to perceive everyday events as “stressful” events. Over time, stress-related diseases result from either an over-exaggerated stress response (too much response to what should have been a small stressor) or an under-exaggerated ability to shut down the stress response (which causes levels of the stress hormone cortisol to remain elevated and biochemical balance to fall apart).
Because the modern world rarely requires the evolutionary fight-or-flight response to stress, people deny their bodies their natural physical reaction to stress. Unfortunately, the brain still registers stress in the same way as it always has. But because people no longer react to that stress with vigorous physical activity (fighting or running away), the body “stores” the stress response and continues to churn out high levels of stress hormones. Before you know it, you find yourself suffering from “burnout” or simply “tired/stressed/depressed” and feeling as if you have no control over the many stressors in your life. In one of the more ironic twists visited upon humans as “higher” animals, the brain is so “well developed” that the body has learned to respond to psychological stress with the same hormonal cascade that occurs with exposure to a physical stressor. This means that just by thinking about a stressful event, even if that event is highly unlikely to actually occur, you cause your endocrine system to get into an uproar that interferes with your biochemical balance—leading you toward elevated levels of cellular stress and tissue dysfunction.
Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormones – produced by the adrenal glands. Its main “acute” functions are to increase blood-sugar levels (via insulin antagonism), reduce inflammation, and stimulate immune function. Its main “chronic” effects are to increase blood-sugar levels (via appetite stimulation, so you eat more), increase inflammation, and suppress immune function. 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 above normal levels. 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 four 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” of free radicals from macrophages and related immune 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 subjects exposed to high stress also tend to have reduced muscle mass and higher body-fat levels. And they also tend 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 a cascade of biochemical, hormonal, and metabolic disruptions that result in a heightened state of cellular stress and an accelerated “breakdown” in tissues throughout the body, including the brain, heart, blood vessels, muscles, bones, skin, immune-system cells, etc. At the same time, these disruptions also suppress the “buildup” of healthy tissues, because chronic stress retards tissue growth and adaptation—except for one tissue – abdominal fat (which accumulates in response to disruption in any of the four pillars of health). 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.
Stress researchers, including myself, frequently study competitive athletes. For obvious reasons, athletes are extremely interested in balancing the “dose” of stress they deliver to their bodies with the amount of recovery necessary for optimal performance. Keep in mind that we need to consider all sources of stress that an athlete is exposed to including emotional stress such as relationships and finances; environmental stress such as the sunlight they’re exposed to and the air they’re breathing; cellular stress from exposure to free radicals, cytokines, glucose, and cortisol; and of course the physical stress of their training regimen. Counteracting the muscle-wasting and fat-gaining effects of prolonged cellular stress becomes a large part of maximizing performance gains while minimizing the risk for illness and injury. For many athletes, the delicate balance between training stress and recovery poses a significant dilemma: To become faster and more competitive, they have to train hard, but training too hard without adequate recovery will just make them slow, because they’ll be tired or get sick or hurt.
Athletes who excel at the highest levels are those who are most adept at balancing the three primary components of their programs: training, diet, and recovery. A phenomenon known as “overtraining syndrome” has been linked to chronic cortisol exposure and heightened cellular stress, exactly the same situation that the average non-athletic person faces in their battle with daily stressors and the struggle to maintain biochemical balance. Although chronic overtraining is easy to recognize by its common symptoms of constant fatigue, mood fluctuations, and reduced mental and physical performance (sounds a lot like the burnout and lack of vigor suffered by many non-athletes), it may be difficult to detect in its earlier stages, just like the early stages of stress. Therefore, competitive athletes, like everyone, need to become adept at balancing exposure to cellular stressors with protection and recovery to approach the optimal physical and mental performance they are looking for.
Numerous studies convincingly show that reducing cellular stress—including restoring balance between various measures, such as cortisol, testosterone, glucose, cytokines, CRP, free radicals, and many others—also reduces the risk of dying and increases lifespan. Positive changes in psychological measures of stress, such as a greater sense of “meaningfulness in life,” have also been associated with improvements in cellular stress markers. But this “psycho-biochemical” effect appears to cut both ways, because individuals with “downward” financial mobility (such as job loss) tend to have higher indices of cortisol/cytokines, and those individuals with the highest financial stress (poverty) have been shown to have a striking six-year-shorter life expectancy attributable to increased disease risk from excessive cellular stress. In similar fashion, the risk of developing burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has recently been shown to be approximately three times higher in subjects with elevated psychological stress and dysregulations across the four pillars of health.
I hope that this chapter has given you an appreciation of the importance of restoring biochemical balance within each—and between each—of the four pillars of health. In some ways, it may seem that balancing stress hormones is the most important task in reducing cellular stress, because these hormones are so intimately linked with our biochemistry.
But, as stated throughout this section, the pillars are interdependent and intertwined with each other, so it makes sense to strengthen all of them simultaneously to create a truly comprehensive approach to optimal health. This is precisely what efficient activation of the CDR pathways offers us – a “master regulator” of the cellular response to stress, no matter the source of the stress. As with the example of the dominoes, if you make a positive change regarding one of the pillars, you will set off positive reactions in all the rest. This is what we will discuss in the chapters to come.
Thanks for reading – be sure to tune in for the next installment, where we’ll dive into Chapter 6, “Feel Your Best.”