When we are stressed and anxious , our immune system goes down and we are open to inflammation. So the root cause of most chronic diseases is chronic stress and anxiety. As we balance our hormones, our immune system becomes stronger. Our first step in the fight for inflammation is to reduce our stress hormone cortisol with exercise, whole foods, sleep, less stress, massage and supplementation.
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By: Caroline MacDougall and Laurel Vukovic
The subsequent publication of The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. provides an even stronger picture of what happens in the body when you live awash in cortisol.
“Fight or Flight”: The Body’s Stress Response
Both Cherniske and Talbott explain that cortisol is a necessary stress hormone designed to help you wake up in the morning and in emergencies, to cope with danger. A spike in cortisol triggers the release of amino acids from the muscles, glucose from the liver, and fatty acids into the blood stream so the body can access a tremendous amount of energy.
Sadly, since we lack the inclination in modern life to react to this surge by physically burning it up in intense physical activity, the elevated hormones continue to stimulate the release of even more stress hormones. Due to our sedentary lifestyle, we are usually drinking that cup of coffee while sitting at a desk, a meal, or in our car.
Drink less than 2 cups of coffee in the morning only: When caffeine triggers a cortisol jolt, our state of stress surges in a day already filled with stressful events.
Aging and Catabolic Metabolism
Elevated stress hormones puts the body in what both Cherniske and Talbott call a “catabolic” state. This is the destructive phase of cell life that includes widespread tissue destruction, muscle loss, bone loss, immune system depression and even brain shrinkage! As the body ages, cortisol production increases and coupled with low levels of DHEA, testosterone and estrogen, the loss of cartilage, bone and muscle tissue is accelerated.
Many people find they can’t tolerate caffeine after they turn 40 like they used to when they were 20. At midlife, we first feel our aging bodies start to complain as DHEA production falls, cortisol rises, and suddenly, we no longer have the same energy or endurance we once took for granted.
Weight Gain, Heart Disease, and Diabetes
Chronic long-term exposure to stress hormones disrupts the body’s metabolism causing elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and increased body fat levels due to increased appetite. Stress stimulates cravings for sweet, calorie dense foods and salty, high carbohydrate snacks. The combination of high cortisol, low DHEA and low growth hormone production causes the body to store fat, lose muscle and slow the metabolic rate. No wonder diets like The Fat Flush Plan and The Rosedale Diet tell you to get off of caffeine in order to lose weight!
Stress makes you burn fewer calories and cortisol can actually reduce the body’s ability to release fat from its fat stores to use for energy. Instead, we become sugar burners and fat storers. Stress hormones cause increased body fat in the abdominal region, exactly where we don’t need or want it.
Chronic stress can lead the body to ignore the function of insulin. Insulin resistance develops when the cells fail to respond to insulin’s message to take in glucose from the blood stream. It is thought that elevated blood sugar due to stress and diet contributes to the development of insulin resistance.
When insulin fails to unlock our cells, the appetite is increased while the body’s ability to burn fat is decreased. This syndrome is part of the modern problem of rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
Impaired immune system
Cortisol shrinks the thymus gland – one of the key immune regulators in the body – and inhibits white blood cell activity and production. It can actually signal immune-system cells to shut down and die. Prolonged exposure can cause the same immune system cells to attack the body’s own tissue leading to autoimmune system diseases.
Initially the immune system may over-react causing allergies, asthma and various immune system disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and fibromyalgia. Eventually, long-term exposure may lead to immune system suppression and far more serious diseases caused by the inactivation of our immune system protection.
Stress inhibits the production and activity of natural killer cells, known as NK cells, as much as 50%. NK cells are responsible for identifying and destroying cancer and virus cells. Even more scary, chronic stress can accelerate the growth of cancer cells in the body as well as block the body’s ability to fight cancer. It promotes the synthesis of new blood cells in tumors and accelerates the growth of some tumors.
We are all familiar with the heartburn caused by the high acidity of coffee. Moreover, caffeine, by elevating cortisol, causes energy to be taken away from the gastrointestinal tract, lowers the production of enzymes needed to digest food, and reduces the absorption of minerals and nutrients. High acidity coupled with low mineral levels can lead to the development of osteoporosis.
Additionally, cortisol inhibits the growth of beneficial microflora in the intestines. These essential bacteria support the immune system, create B vitamins, and increase the absorption of minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium. A decrease in their population results in more colds, sore throats, headaches, diarrhea, upset stomachs and the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and fungus like candida.
Mood Swings and Depression
Moodiness, anxiety, and depression are all consequences of elevated cortisol’s long-term effects on seratonin and dopamine production. Although stress hormones cause a temporary increase in short term memory for up to 30 minutes, elevated cortisol reduces blood flow and glucose delivery to the brain and interferes with the brain cell’s ability to uptake glucose. It can even cause brain cells to actually shrink!
Studies show that students who study late on caffeine, thus elevating cortisol levels, find their short-term memory fails them on the next day’s exam.
Fatigue and Insomnia
Cortisol production is naturally high in the early morning around 8 AM because one of its beneficial functions is to help you rise and shine for the day. People who chronically stress their adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol alter their cortisol concentrations so that cortisol is low in the morning when they wake up instead of high.
Of course if you wake up feeling sluggish, most people will reach for a cup of coffee to artificially spike their cortisol levels up again. If you drink coffee later in the day, elevated cortisol can interfere with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Coffee with meals can trigger cortisol surges that can cause overeating when blood sugar subsequently drops. High levels of cortisol can interfere with a good night’s sleep because it can keep you from entering Stage 3 and 4 sleep; the deep, rebuild and repair sleep your body needs for recovery.
Skin Aging and Wrinkling
Last but hardly least, is our appearance. Caffeine dehydrates the body. So do elevated cortisol levels. This leads to dehydrated skin and premature wrinkling. Dr. Nicholas Perricone in his best selling books, The Perricone Prescription and The Wrinkle Cure, is emphatic about quitting coffee to prevent skin aging. His patients revealed to him the consequences of elevated cortisol levels on skin aging and wrinkling through both dehydration and the decrease of collagen and elastin production.
Tips To Lowering Your Cortisol Production:
Cherniske and Talbott both emphasize the importance of increasing our “anabolic” metabolism, the rebuild, repair and rejuvenate cycle of cell life, to reverse the consequences of elevated stress hormones and aging. Cherniske likens the anabolic/catabolic metabolic model to a seesaw. You want to have the anabolic side of the seesaw up in the air and the catabolic, or breakdown and degeneration, side down as low as it can go.
Here are 6 tips that give you their top recommendations to decrease cortisol levels and thus catabolic metabolism while you increase anabolic metabolism and experience optimal health.
Eliminate caffeine from your diet. It’s the quickest way to reduce cortisol production and elevate the production of DHEA, the leading anabolic youth hormone. 200 mg of caffeine (one 12 oz mug of coffee) increases blood cortisol levels by 30% in one hour! Cortisol can remain elevated for up to 18 hours in the blood. This is the easiest step to decrease your catabolic metabolism and increase your anabolic metabolism.
Sleep deeper and longer. The average 50 year old has nighttime cortisol levels more than 30 times higher than the average 30 year old. Try taking melatonin, a natural hormone produced at night that helps regulate sleep/wake cycles, before going to sleep to boost your own melatonin production that also decreases with age. You may not need it every night, but if you are waking up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning, melatonin can help you sleep deeper and lengthen your sleep cycle. If you get sleepy during the day even though you had plenty of rest, back off the melatonin for a while. It’s a sign you are getting too much.
Exercise regularly to build muscle mass and increase brain output of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. Cherniske recommends taking DHEA supplements to shorten the adaptation period when out-of-shape muscles and cardiovascular system discourage people from continuing to exercise before they get in shape. DHEA also accelerates the building of muscle mass and increases the feeling of being strong and energetic.
Keep your blood sugar stable. Avoid sugar in the diet and refined carbohydrates to keep from spiking your insulin production. Eat frequent small meals balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats like olive oil and flax seed oil. Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets. Keep well hydrated – dehydration puts the body in stress and raises cortisol levels. Keep pure water by your bed and drink it when you first wake up and before you go to sleep.
Take anti-stress supplements like B vitamins, minerals like calcium, magnesium, chromium and zinc, and antioxidants like vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, grapeseed extract, and Co Q 10. Adaptogen herbs like ginseng, astragalus, eleuthero, schizandra, Tulsi (holy basil) rhodiola and ashwagandha help the body cope with the side effects of stress and rebalance the metabolism. These supplement and herbs will not only lower cortisol levels but they will also help you decrease the effects of stress on the body by boosting the immune system.
Meditate or listen to relaxation tapes that promote the production of alpha (focused alertness) and theta (relaxed) brain waves. Avoid jolting alarm clocks that take you from delta waves (deep sleep) to beta waves (agitated and anxious) and stimulants like caffeine that promote beta waves while suppressing alpha and theta waves.
For a deeper exploration of the role of cortisol and the consequences of long-term elevation of stress hormones in the body, read The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. and The Metabolic Plan by Stephen Cherniske, M.S.
To review, elevated Cortisol production reduces Testosterone levels. This results in an imbalance which causes many symptoms including weight gain and especially weight gain in the stomach.
You learned in that article that stress reduction, proper sleep, a nutritious whole food diet, caffeine reduction, exercise, and sufficient water all help to reduce Cortisol production and increase Testosterone levels. I am often asked if there are any herbs or supplements that help reduce Cortisol production?
This article is based on current research and double blind studies. Most of these studies were performed in Europe not the United States. The FDA and AMA does not accept research studies from most foreign governments. Billions of dollars in quality, double blind research clinical studies have been done in Europe, China, and Japan on herbs and supplements , but the research is not accepted here.
Siberian Ginseng and other adaptogen herbs (anti-stress)
By Laurel Vukovic, author
There’s no escaping stress in life. Although most of us tend to think of stress in negative terms—relationship difficulties, job pressures, family problems and financial concerns—stress also is triggered by positive experiences, such as a promotion at work, getting married or buying a home. Stress simply is the body’s heightened physiological response to new situations and to the ever-changing conditions of life.
There’s no doubt that positive stressors feel better than negative ones, but all stress takes a toll on your physical and emotional well-being. The body responds to stress by preparing to fight or flee: The adrenal glands release hormones (including cortisol and adrenaline), which give you a surge of energy and strength. This is designed to be an emergency response to a temporary situation, and all systems are meant to return to normal functioning when the crisis has passed.
Problems arise when stress becomes chronic. Continual releases of stress hormones trigger inflammation, knock back immune function, elevate blood pressure, hinder digestion and impair mental clarity. In fact, researchers estimate that between 60 and 90 percent of all illnesses are stress-related.
Bolstering your resistance to stress includes basic strategies: Eat a healthful diet, get plenty of exercise and rest, and learn to reduce your stress through some type of calming practice, like meditation or yoga. In addition, taking a specific class of herbs known as adaptogens can protect your body, improve your mental functioning and help your body adapt more easily to stressors.
Special Tonic Herbs
Knowledge of special tonic herbs to fortify health and promote longevity dates back thousands of years to ancient China and India. Research over the past few decades has proven that these tonic herbs—now called adaptogens—have remarkable health-protective properties. Today, more than ever, adaptogens play an important role in helping strengthen resistance to the daily stresses of life.
There are certain criteria an herb must meet to qualify as an adaptogen. The herb must restore balance and strengthen the functioning of the body without throwing another organ or body system out of balance. Adaptogens facilitate these changes by a wide range of actions rather than just by one specific action. Of equal importance to the herb’s active properties is its safety—an adaptogen must be nontoxic and non-habit forming, even when taken over a long period of time.
According to Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, the improvement in energy that comes from the regular use of adaptogens is the result of a deeper internal shift toward health. Adaptogens provide a safe way to restore balance, rebuild health and vitality, and promote longevity. For optimal benefit, adaptogens should be taken for a minimum of three months, and can safely be taken indefinitely. The following adaptogens have been used for centuries to improve health and vitality, and have a significant body of research to support their use.
Ashwaganda: An Ayurvedic Favorite
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). The most frequently prescribed tonic herb in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwaganda is recommended for anyone suffering from weakness or debility, including fatigue caused by nervous tension and overwork. Ashwaganda is reputed to increase energy and endurance, promote longevity, support sexual vitality, calm the mind, enhance mental function, rejuvenate the tissues, strengthen immune function, encourage restful sleep and help the body overcome imbalances caused by mental or physical stress, poor diet, environmental toxins or lack of sleep. Ashwaganda also has been used as an anti-inflammatory to relieve arthritis and joint pain.
In the August 2000 issue of Alternative Medicine Review, the authors evaluated research on ashwaganda to determine the chemical properties, therapeutic effects and potential toxicity of the herb. They determined that ashwaganda has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-stress, immune-enhancing and rejuvenating properties. In addition, ashwaganda has little or no toxicity. Researchers believe that compounds called withanolides are responsible for ashwaganda’s healing properties. Withanolides are very similar to ginsenosides, the compounds responsible for the health benefits of ginseng. In fact, ashwaganda often is referred to as “Indian ginseng.”
In studies, ashwaganda has been shown to stimulate immune cell activity and inhibit inflammation. Research also has shown the herb has mild sedative and muscle-relaxing properties. These findings support the herb’s traditional use as a tonic to bolster stress resistance and enhance general health and well-being.
Ashwaganda is available in powdered form, capsules and as a liquid extract. A traditional dosage is 1 to 2 grams of the dried powdered root, taken three times daily. As a liquid extract, take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon three times a day. A typical dosage of a standardized extract is 100 to 200 mg twice a day.
Eleuthero: The Ginseng That Isn’t
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Formerly known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is not a true ginseng, although it’s in the same botanical family as Panax ginseng. Indigenous to Siberia and northeastern China, eleuthero has been used for at least 2,000 years to improve general health, increase energy and as a longevity tonic. Many studies have shown the herb to be an invaluable aid for enhancing resistance to stress, and people who regularly take eleuthero report an increased sense of psychological as well as physical well-being.
The health-promoting benefits of eleuthero have largely been researched and documented by Russian scientists, who became interested in the root of the spiny shrub as an alternative to the more costly P. ginseng. In more than 1,000 studies, eleuthero has been shown to significantly increase energy and endurance for both physical and mental tasks, enhance immune function and protect the body against environmental stresses and toxins. Eleuthero also has been shown to normalize blood pressure, lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and strengthen the adrenal glands, which play an important role in regulating the body’s response to stressful situations.
Scientists have identified compounds in eleuthero called eleutherosides, which have similar effects to the ginsenosides found in P. ginseng. Many herbalists regard eleuthero to be more appropriate for a wider range of people than the more stimulating P. ginseng.
A typical dosage of eleuthero is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of liquid extract twice a day or 2 to 3 grams of powdered root daily. Some products are standardized for eleutherosides; if you’re taking these products, follow the manufacturers’ dosage recommendations. For best results, take eleuthero for at least three months. Because eleuthero can have positive effects on regulating blood pressure, consult your doctor if you’re taking blood pressure medication.
Ginseng: A Long-Revered Tonic Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). In ancient China, ginseng was valued more highly than gold, and turf wars still flare in the United States over stands of wild American ginseng (P. quinquefolius). A slow-growing woodland plant, ginseng has been revered for more than 5,000 years as a premier herbal vitality tonic.
The botanical name, Panax, is derived from a combination of Greek words that translates as “cure-all,” or “panacea.” Hundreds of studies support ginseng’s illustrious reputation. Research shows that ginseng increases endurance, relieves fatigue, bolsters immunity, helps regulate cholesterol and blood sugar, and enhances mental function. Two species of ginseng are commonly used as adaptogens: Asian ginseng, which grows in China; and American ginseng, which is native to the northeastern United States. Both have similar properties. In fact, Native Americans used ginseng in much the same way as the Chinese, and American ginseng is highly prized in China.
In research studies, ginseng has clearly been shown to enhance physical and mental performance and help protect the body against stress. Scientists have identified dozens of active compounds unique to ginseng called ginsenosides.
Ginseng appears to modulate hormonal reactions, particularly those related to the physiological stress response. Studies have shown that ginseng helps to lower levels of stress hormones called glucocorticoids, both immediately after stressful incidents and during periods of prolonged stress. In a 1996 study published in Phytotherapy Research, 232 people suffering from long-term fatigue were given a multivitamin/mineral supplement. Researchers spiked half of the subjects’ dosage with 40 mg of standardized ginseng extract twice a day. The other half were given a placebo. After a couple of months, only 5.7 percent of the ginseng group still complained of fatigue, compared to 15.2 percent of those taking the placebo.
While consumers in the West tend to use various types of ginseng interchangeably, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine make specific recommendations for ginseng use based on the age and health of the individual. In general, Asian ginseng is used as a restorative for the elderly and for anyone in a weakened condition. American ginseng is believed to be less stimulating and, therefore, more appropriate for younger people (those younger than 50), for those in generally good health and for long-term use. Because of overharvesting, the once abundant American ginseng is now considered rare and endangered.
However, cultivated (sometimes called woods-grown) American ginseng is widely available.
Ginseng can be taken as a liquid extract, powder, capsule or tablet. Standardized extracts provide a guaranteed amount of ginsenosides. Most clinical studies have used ginseng extracts standardized to 4 percent ginsenosides, at a dosage of 200 to 500 mg daily. If you are taking a nonstandardized preparation, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s recommended dosages because potencies vary greatly. A general dosage for nonstandardized preparations is 1 to 4 grams of powdered root daily or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon daily of liquid extract. Traditionally, ginseng is used cyclically—for example, take the herb for two weeks, and then take a two-week break before resuming the dosage.
When used as directed at recommended dosages, ginseng rarely causes side effects. However, Chinese ginseng has been known to cause overstimulation or irritability in some people. If this occurs, lower the dosage or switch to American ginseng, which is considered less stimulating. Don’t take larger-than-recommended doses of ginseng, and do not use ginseng in combination with other stimulants, such as caffeine. Pregnant and nursing women also should not use the herb.
Rhodiola: A Russian Favorite
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Used for hundreds of years in Russia and Scandinavia, rhodiola grows at high altitudes in the arctic regions of Europe and Asia. Sometimes called “golden root,” rhodiola derives its Latin name from the roselike fragrance of the fresh root. For centuries, rhodiola traditionally has been used to bolster physical and mental capacity.
Although it has been studied extensively in Russia and Scandinavia, rhodiola has only recently become known in the United States. In Russia and many Scandinavian countries, however, rhodiola is considered an official botanical medicine and commonly is prescribed as a general strengthener for treating fatigue, improving work performance, alleviating depression and improving resistance to both physical and psychological stress.
Dozens of studies show that rhodiola has potent adaptogenic properties. In a recent Phytotherapy Research study, researchers found that even a single dose of the extract results in improved ability to cope with stressful situations, including reducing stress-related anxiety.
Because there are many varieties of rhodiola, buy only products that specify on the label that the species used is R. rosea. The product should be standardized for the amount of rosavin (generally 2 percent), which is considered the active ingredient. A typical dosage is 100 mg three times a day.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1,001 Natural Remedies (DK, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).
Magnolia Officinalis is used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years. Chinese physicians use it to treat stomach problems brought on by stress. It contains two compounds that combat stress and therefore help lower Cortisol production. Magnolia Bark is used in several Japanese herbal medicines including Saiboku-to and Hange-kobuku-to, used to treat many disorders including depression and anxiety. Research indicates that it is most effective at reducing stress and anxiety, with only some effect on actual evening Cortisol reduction. A note here is that Cortisol production is greater in the morning than in the evening.
Theanine: An amino acid found in green tea. Theanine is not found in green tea where it has been decaffeinated. Theanine helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It is relaxing without causing drowsiness. It is helpful for insomnia. It helps to lower Cortisol by its affect on reducing stress and anxiety.
Epimedium: (Horny Goat Weed)
Medicinal herb dating back to 400 AD. Chinese physicians use it to treat impotence, low libido,as a rejuvenating tonic, and reproductive tonic. It also has the effect of dilating the blood vessels, so is used by some physicians to treat coronary heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, and as a expectorant. It is classed as a Adaptogen which means it helps to normalize organ functions. Most imbalances and disease states are caused from organs and body systems either over functioning or under-functioning. Research has also shown that Epimedium has an effect of normalizing Testosterone and thyroid hormone production. The administration of Epimedium extract lowered Cortisol levels, improved immune function, and slowed bone loss. The safest form of this herb is water-extracted epimedium drunk as in a tea. This herb used in a concentrated form can cause over stimulation so be aware of that.
A phospholipid found in our own brain cells naturally. It is also found in all cell membranes as well. Its main role is in brain-cell function, muscle metabolism, and immune-system function. Phosphatidylserine is used in formulas to stimulate mental performance and memory. It is also been shown to help athletes recover from intensive exercise and slow muscle loss. Recently research from Italy has proven that Phosphatidylserine taken in doses of 400 to 600mg per day reduce Cortisol levels after exercise by 15 to 30 percent. Phosphatidylserine is also useful for stress reduction as well. This supplement is expensive so is not a good pick for those on a budget.
Phosphatidylserine has been the focus of numerous European double blind studies. European physicians are using it successfully to treat Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and mental decline. It does have the effect of thinning the blood so individuals taking prescription blood thinners should beware and seek the advise and supervision of a holistic doctor.
Nuts and seeds contain the highest amounts of phytosterols. Many fruits and vegetables contain phytosterols as well but in a lesser degree. Phytosterols support immune function, have an effect on reducing inflammation and pain. In athletic performance, they have been shown to reduce Cortisol levels, support DHEA levels, and support immune function. Animal studies have shown their ability to reduce breast cancer cells and their ability to metastasize. You can get a good dose of Phytosterols in a few handfuls of roasted peanuts or a large scoop of peanut butter but you also get a lot of calories. It takes 100 to 300 mg of a mixed phytosterol supplement to support immune function and decrease cortisol production. In Athletic performance it requires a high dose of 800 mg per day. This makes it a pretty expensive supplement to improve athletic performance.
I encourage you to explore the links below to learn more on Cortisol reduction and what herbs and supplements can increase Testosterone.
• Flex: “Rhodiola reduction: the herb that reduces cortisol levels”
• Natural Medicine Journal: “Adrenal Dysregulation Syndrome and Elevated Salivary Cortisol Levels”
• Life Extension Magazine: “Report: Cortisol”
• The Cortisol Connection: Cortisol-Control Supplements
• Psychology Today: Vitamin C — Stress Buster
Prevent Alzheimer with Phosphatidylserine, lower cortisol stress hormone
One of the best known and most effective ways to lower excess
cortisol levels is with the nutrient Phosphatidylserine (PS).
Phosphatidylserine is believed to facilitate the repair of the
cortisol receptors in the hypothalamus. It is believed that the
cortisol receptors get damaged by high cortisol levels reducing the
ability of the hypothalamus to sense and correct high cortisone
levels. Because Phosphatidylserine helps repair the feedback control
apparatus, it is useful in correcting both high and low cortisol
levels. Phosphatidylserine is also useful for preventing short-term
memory loss, age-related dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Typical
dosages are one to three 100 mg. capsules per day.”
If you want personalize coaching, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . There are combo herbs that I used to balance my hormones after I reached the age of 40.
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