By Sara Gottfried MD
Have you heard of the “cortisol switch?”
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. It has three main jobs: raise blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run or fight), raise blood pressure, and modulate immune function.
But here’s the rub: The Cortisol Switch. Your body ceases to register the positive aspects of cortisol, and you switch to the negative aspects of cortisol. It’s like when you drink regular coffee and feel like a rock star, for 20 minutes. Then you hit the wall, get all jittery and anxious. Thoughts erode. Blood sugar drops. Acidity increases. You get heavy and dumb. Over time, high cortisol, when sustained, is linking to high blood pressure, diabetes, increased belly fat, brain changes such as atrophy of the hippocampus (where memory is synthesized), depression, 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.
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.
I know about such things. I’m a Harvard-trained physician, scientist, and yoga teacher. I struggled 10 years ago with high cortisol, pre-diabetes, and a spare floating around my mid-section. 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 4 days per week. I was cranky. I barked at my kids and ran low on feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which excess cortisol depletes over time.
Similar to many 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 was probably the worst advice a doctor could give to someone with high cortisol.
I did what Harvard taught me well: I formulated a hypothesis that it could be my hormones were out of whack. I turned myself into a guinea pig. And I fixed my cortisol, 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 5 practices for you. (NOT tips, because tips are things you do once and then they fall by the wayside. Practices are something you take on more fully, and integrate into your day — ultimately becoming a habit.)
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.
2. Take that fish oil. You know it’s a good idea. So why don’t you take it? 2000 mg per day lowers your cortisol level.
3. Contemplative 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, Baby. Just radical.
4. Adaptive exercise. Running raises cortisol. Switching to yoga and Pilates made all the difference in my weight.
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.”
Sara Gottfried, OB/GYN, MD is a Harvard Integrative Physician and the author of The Hormone Cure. Please visit http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/