Did you know that the overproduction of cortisol, triggered by your body’s stress response, can lead to adrenal burnout, memory loss, and aging?
One of the most insidious consequences of silent inflammation is the chronic increase in the hormone cortisol levels that it causes, and there is no way you can be in a state of wellness if your cortisol levels are too high. You may be asking yourself, what on earth is silent inflammation? Even more perplexing, how can inflammation be silent? Silent inflammation is simply inflammation that falls below the threshold of perceived pain. That’s what makes it so dangerous. You don’t take any steps to stop it as it smolders for years, if not decades, eventually erupting into what we call chronic disease.
Silent inflammation is a direct result of excess production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. In an effort to shut down these eicosanoids, your body’s primary hormonal defense mechanism is to secrete more cortisol. Unfortunately, cortisol is too powerful for its own good. It not only shuts down “bad,” pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, but it also shuts down the “good,” anti-inflammatory ones as well. That might be OK, if the damage stopped there; but it’s only the beginning of the collateral hormonal damage caused by excess cortisol.
Cortisol is produced by your body in response to long-term stress. When you are under any type of stress—whether physical or emotional—your body pumps out cortisol in an attempt to shut off the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. Stress is defined as disruption to your body’s normal equilibrium. It might be due to an acute injury, chronic disease, excess exercise, changes in temperature or humidity, lack of sleep, or chronic anxiety. Whatever the cause, at the molecular level, the end result is the increase in silent inflammation.
We often think of cortisol as a stress hormone but, in reality, it is an anti-stress hormone whose job is to deal with the inflammatory responses that chronic stress is taking on your body. It is meant to be a short-term response to stress, and it works quite well in this capacity. The hormonal mechanism that evolved for cortisol was never intended to handle long-term stress coming from silent inflammation. Cortisol was meant to shut down the immune system after we recovered from a short-term, though potentially deadly, infectious disease or a fear of being eaten by a wild animal.
But what happens if you have high levels of silent inflammation on a long-term basis? In an attempt to shut down this silent inflammation, your body pumps out more and more cortisol, keeping its levels chronically elevated. Chronically high cortisol can lead to a host of health ills, from insulin resistance, to nerve cell death, to a depressed immune system. As a result, you gain weight, lose your intellectual potential, and become predisposed to illness.
While it’s true that we have far fewer threats to our lives these days, we tend to have more lifelong problems, such as stressful jobs, chronic health conditions, and mood disorders. The result is a hormonal mess for many of us.
Cortisol output is normally governed by our circadian rhythms. Levels are at their lowest between midnight and 2 A.M. and slowly begin to rise to awaken us out of sleep. They peak between 6 and 8 A.M., and then gradually decrease throughout the day, dropping off to their lowest point during sleep. That is, of course, if you have no extra stress to muck things up.
Far too often, though, you have a stressful blip that disturbs this cycle. Usually, cortisol production shifts back in gear after you get past that blip. But, if you have certain bad habits in your lifestyle on a permanent basis, you might have chronically high cortisol levels. These bad habits include:
• Prolonged or intense exercise
• Stuffing yourself with large meals
• Skipping meals
• Excess intake of stimulants, such as caffeine
• Being overweight
• Low blood sugar from a very low-carbohydrate diet
The Dangers of Excess Cortisol
Increased cortisol sends a signal to your body that it needs to prepare for a possible flight from danger. This triggers an immediate breakdown of muscle to make more blood glucose (neo-glucogenesis). To prevent non-essential organs in the body from using this precious blood glucose, a transient insulin resistance develops with a corresponding rise in insulin levels in the blood stream.
Constant stress means constant secretion of cortisol. As your body adapts to chronic stress, you become hyperinsulinemic, thereby creating more visceral fat. This fuels a new round of cortisol secretion, and the end result is you get fatter (especially in the abdominal region) and wind up with chronic silent inflammation.
As your body keeps producing excess cortisol, it cuts back on its production of other hormones, such as testosterone. Without adequate levels of testosterone, it is impossible to maintain, let alone build, muscle. Making matters worse, a deficiency in testosterone dampens libido (in both men and women) so that sex becomes far less enticing. Excess cortisol also destroys your short-term memory, which makes sense in times of acute stress (like combat, severe accidents, or physical abuse) because it allows you to repress very tragic events. Under long-term mild stress, however, this short-term memory loss is far more problematic and can lead to a decreased ability to recall a wide number of memories, including pleasant ones.
Like insulin, cortisol levels tend to increase naturally in our bodies as we age. But this increase occurs in a unique way. As I have mentioned, the normal circadian rhythm of cortisol is for it to peak in the morning, with a sharp drop-off in the afternoon. As we get older, the increase in overall cortisol is much more gradual, because the hormone remains elevated in the evening instead of dropping sharply. As a result of this elevation, it may be more difficult to get to sleep at night, which can lead to late-night cravings, especially for carbohydrates.
Lack of sleep, itself, can have a devastating effect on cortisol. Studies show that, if you decrease your sleep from 8 hours to 6 1/2 hours per night, within a week you’ll experience a significant increase in cortisol levels and a corresponding increase in insulin levels. In addition to all the psychological stressors we have today, most of us are chronically sleep deprived. The average American clocks in only seven hours of sleep a night, down from the nine hours we were getting a century ago.
Long-Term Increased Cortisol Equals Adrenal Burnout
Producing too much cortisol for months or years can eventually lead to burnout of your adrenal glands, the glands that sit on top of your kidneys and pump out both adrenaline and cortisol. If, after being chronically overtaxed, your adrenal glands eventually fail to produce enough cortisol, then you’re in real trouble, because you no longer have your primary hormonal tool to reduce silent inflammation. This is similar to what happens to the pancreas when it continually overproduces insulin in response to continuing insulin resistance in cells. Eventually, the pancreas fails to function properly and can no longer produce enough insulin to bring down elevated blood glucose levels. The result is type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes. This only accelerates the generation of silent inflammation throughout the body and rapidly increases the likelihood of heart attacks, blindness, kidney failure, and amputation. With adrenal burnout, you have no internal mechanism to stop the overproduction of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, and aging begins to accelerate.
I am sure you’ve now received the message loud and clear that excess cortisol is bad. Now, what should you do about it? Since excess cortisol is caused by the excess production of “bad” pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, the best way to lower your levels is to reduce the same eicosanoids. This means the reduction of silent inflammation.
If you’re following a diet which stabilizes blood glucose levels and taking high-dose fish oil (which reduces arachidonic acid [AA] levels), you’re taking your first steps to reduce excess cortisol. By maintaining stable blood sugar and insulin levels, your body will secrete less cortisol when you’re stressed. The EPA in the fish oil reduces the production of AA, which chokes off the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. Without these “bad” eicosanoids, your body has no reason to secrete excess cortisol. High-dose fish oil also increases the production of serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone in your brain, which allows you to adapt to stress more effectively. The stress is still there, but now the collateral damage that comes from it is significantly reduced.
Unlike our Paleolithic ancestors, we have a pretty good idea when emotional and physical stresses are coming. This gives you the opportunity to plan in advance. This is especially true with respect to your diet. If you know you’re going to be under stress, you have to double your efforts to stick to a healthy diet. This will prevent you from having the increased carbohydrate cravings that come with stress, because you’ll be keeping your insulin levels stable.
How many times in the past have you given in to cravings for high glycemic-load carbohydrates, such as candy bars, potato chips, and pizza, during stressful situations? This type of emotional eating will rapidly replenish a rapidly dropping blood glucose level caused by increased cortisol. However, this form of self-medication puts you on a vicious cycle of rapid increases in blood sugar and insulin, followed by a rapid decrease, followed by craving for more carbohydrates. The result is that your body will continue to pump out even more cortisol to try to maintain adequate blood sugar levels (by tearing down more muscle to convert into glucose) for the brain.
Trying to rigidly maintain a good diet in times of great stress is not the easiest job. Therefore, the best hormonal strategy to rapidly address a particularly stressful period is to double your usual intake of fish oil. The results will be almost immediate. Once the stress passes, you can simply go back to your standard dose of fish oil.
High-dose fish oil and a good diet remain your primary tools for combating the collateral damage induced by excess cortisol. But there also remains one other tool that has been time tested. It’s called relaxation. If you are already following stress reduction strategies, taking high-dose fish oil and maintaining a healthy diet will only enhance their effectiveness.
Dr. Barry Sears, leading authority on the dietary control of hormonal response, author of the New York Times #1 best seller, The Zone, is a former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more information about The Zone program call 1-800-404-8171 or visit www.drsearszonefast.com.