Cortisol equals stress equals belly fat. That is what most people know about cortisol and although that is not fully wrong it is far from the whole story. Before we get into the physiology and long words – let’s try an analogy. Heavy metal is a genre of music that some people like and some people hate. It is loud and well…heavy. Some people can deal with a lot of heavy metal and some people lose their minds seeing someone play the air guitar.
However, I don’t believe that even people who can deal with a lot of heavy metal would want to listen to it every waking hour of the day or put their baby to sleep with some good ol’ Drowning Pool – let the bodies hit the… They would turn it on when they needed a little boost. Maybe if they were lifting heavy weights or playing with fire – I dunno.
Cortisol is like heavy metal and it is estimated that 90% of the US population suffers from some sort of cortisol dysregulation so like it or not most of us are living front row at a Static X concert.
The Science of Cortisol
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid – meaning that it is a steroid based hormone whose main job is to raise blood glucose in times of stress. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands (specifically the adrenal cortex) that lie above each kidney. The adrenals receive the memo to secrete cortisol through the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland which makes up the HPA axis.
Cortisol has other functions inside the body other than just raising blood sugar – it is a natural pain killer, modulates inflammation, controls hunger cravings, slows digestion, increases blood pressure, governs sleep/wake cycles, and our capacity to cope with stress. These are not bad. Cortisol is not bad. We evolved this system to help if we are going to blast an intruder or enter a mash pit. But spewing out cortisol all the time is a recipe for disaster and not something our bodies can handle in the long-term.
“Ninety five percent of diseases are either caused or worsened by stress.”
– Dr. Mark Hyman
Thus, understanding stress and how to bring cortisol into its appropriate rhythm (higher in the morning and lowering throughout the day) is pivotal to long-term health and performance (perhaps even the most pivotal). So how do we make this happen on the individual level?
The first step is understanding the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which our colleague Steve Cuddy MPT, PRC has described quite eloquently in the coming issue of Austin Fit Magazine. There are two branches of the ANS – the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS – rest and digest) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – fight or flight or for females tend and befriend). Someone who is unable to unplug and relax will most likely have an SNS that is always ON and overpowering the PSNS. We measure this directly with the OmegaWave – depicted below.
If someone comes in consistently with this SNS dominant pattern we know they are headed down shit’s creek without a paddle and our number one priority becomes helping them make positive lifestyle changes that allow them to relax, recover, and unplug.
Everyone will have different mechanisms that work well for them things like: talking with friends, relaxing in the evening, Yoga, meditation, church, taking a hike in nature, swimming, or throwing our phone off a mountain too name a few. The key is adding more of these items and slowly subtracting the things that drive an SNS response, as well as tweak how we perceive these inevitable sympathetic drivers.
Lifestyle changes are the beginning of the journey and should be for everyone. Although they are far from the end. If we need to keep digging we will order a full Adrenal Stress Panel, as well as test for other underlying internal stressors that may be setting this system off uncontrollably – blood glucose control issues, viral or bacterial infections, gut pathogens (estimated that 90% of the population has one), food sensitivities, leaky gut and other digestive issues, PTSD, buried relationship and/or personal stressors, neurotransmitter imbalance, etc.
Controlling cortisol and restoring the HPA axis are just part of the equation, the real journey is finding out what your heavy metal is and how to turn it off.