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Cortisol Switcharoo: How the Main Stress Hormone Makes You Fat and Angry

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Have you heard of the "cortisol switch"?

The Good

Here's the scenario. When you're stressed, you feel the positive vibe of cortisol -- the rise of energy, the focus, the charge, the ascent. Cortisol is the main stress hormone made in your adrenal glands and it's designed to get you out of danger. Cortisol has three main jobs: raise blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run or fight), raise blood pressure, and modulate immune function.

The Bad (aka, the Switch)

But here's the rub (as Shakespeare puts it)... "the cortisol switch." Your body ceases to register the positive aspects of cortisol, and you switch to the negative aspects of cortisol. It takes about 18 minutes.

It's like when you drink regular coffee and feel like a rockstar, for 18 minutes to be precise. Then you get hit the wall, get all jittery and anxious. Thoughts erode. Blood sugar rises, then precipitously drops. Acidity increases. You get heavy and dumb.

The Long-Term Badness: From Muffin Top to Insomnia

Over time, high cortisol, when sustained, is linked to high blood pressure, prediabetes and diabetes, increased belly fat, brain changes such as atrophy of the hippocampus (where memory is synthesized), depression, suicide, insomnia, and poor wound healing. In fact, fat cells in the belly have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells elsewhere, so you just keep reinforcing the muffin top as your cortisol climbs and stays high. It's not pretty.

The best end game? Prevent the cortisol switch.

Cortisol is like that. It's an impulsive little hormone that makes you feel smart and on your game one moment, and then turns on you. And the positive side of cortisol, prior to the switch, can be addictive.

My Own Path With the Cortisol Switch.

I know about such things. I'm a Harvard-trained physician scientist and yoga teacher. I struggled for 10 years ago with high cortisol, sugar cravings, unstable blood sugar, irritability, pre-diabetes, and a spare beach floatie around my waist (though I was otherwise lean and didn't look the part of a person with high blood sugar). It felt like I looked at a piece of chocolate cake and gained weight. Overall, I gained about 20 pounds over a few years, despite eating moderately and running four days per week. I was cranky and tired. I barked at my kids and ran low on feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are depleted by excess cortisol over time. I'd get home from a long day of seeing 30 patients as a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, and do the worst possible thing: pour a glass of wine.

Turns out that alcohol raises cortisol.

Similar to others who struggle with a stress-crazed life and the downstream effects of the cortisol switch, conventional medicine had no answers for me. I went to the doctor and was told to exercise more. That might be the worst advice a clinician could give to someone with high cortisol.

Time for a Little Hypothesis-Testing...

I did what Harvard taught me well: I formulated a hypothesis. Perhaps my hormones were out of whack. I read a ton, beyond the mainstream textbooks that I had on my bookshelf. I learned that for thousands of years, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine dealt with such problems.

I Went Rogue. I Channelled Tim Ferris.

I turned myself into a guinea pig. Biohacker, but of the female persuasion. It took me years, but I fixed my cortisol, changed what I ate, lost weight, and filled my tank with energy again. It took me years, but my cortisol is now normal. And (bonus prize!) the downstream effects are much more flexibility, emotional intelligence and dexterity, and sex drive! No more fat and angry!

What can be done about the problem of cortisol, and the shadow side of this important stress hormone? I've got five practices for you. (These are not tips, because tips are things you do once and then they fall by the wayside. Practices are different. You take them on more fully, and integrate them into your day -- ultimately becoming a habit.)

5 Practices to "Right-Size" Your Cortisol (and Prevent Cortisol Switch)

  1. Eat nutrient-dense food. Avoid refined carbs and sugar like the plague. Jonesin' for sugar or alcohol? It could be a symptom of high cortisol. Don't go there. It just keeps spiraling downward and doesn't make you feel better. Eyes on the prize, which is cortisol in its sweet spot, not too high and not too low.
  2. Take that fish oil. You know it's a good idea. Yes, it's more proven than any other supplement at the health food store. So why don't you take it? Just 2,000 mg per day lowers your cortisol level.
  3. Contempletive practice is nonnegotiable. This is especially true if you are struggling with your weight. A recent study from my 'hood, the University of California at San Francisco, showed that obese women who began a mindfulness program and stuck with it for four months lost belly fat. That is radical. Just radical.
  4. Adaptive exercise. Running raises cortisol. Switching to adaptive exercise where maximal heart rate (and VO2 max) are not king really worked for me. In fact, yoga and Pilates made all the difference in my weight. (Note to the running addicts: Are you a cortisol junkie? Perhaps. Fortunately, vitamin C may buffer the rise in cortisol associated with maximal exercise.)
  5. Rhodiola is queen when cortisol is high. Rhodiola is an herb and one of the forms of ginseng, and it's the best proven botanical treatment for lowering cortisol. I just took mine, so I'm on the happy side of the mountain, of the "cortisol switch."

And if you need to go deeper, if you know from that still point within that you have a problem with the cortisol switch, and if you know that you need external accountability and a daily reminder... I've got a few more practices to share with you in a few days. I want to shorten the learning curve for you, and prevent for you the years it took me to get on the cortisol repair train. I want to shorten your learning curve. Tune in next time and ride the train further.

For more by Sara Gottfried, M.D., click here.

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