It is an unavoidable fact of life that Stress is the reason we age, and it is the reason for 80% of illness. Stress causes the production of adrenalin in the body, which is a good thing and enables us to cope. But excess stress causes the production of cortisol, and this has a deadly effect on our health. To read about the Physical Causes of Stress, Click here
Cortisol and illness:
Cortisol is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands in response to mental and physical stress, and it is also the hormone our bodies use to fight inflammation. Because cortisol is so important in managing our stress response and ultimate chance of survival in a fight-or-flight situation, it has an enormous effect on all of the systems in our body. However, if there is inflammation present, due to poor diet and/or drugs (aspirin, ibuprofen, and antibiotics), the adrenal glands will respond by producing cortisol. This is exactly why it can cause so many system disorders, such as:
• Back Pain, Neck Pain, and Headaches
• Candida Yeast Infections
• Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Adrenal Exhaustion
• Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Autoimmune Disease
• Food Cravings
• Heart Disease
• Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar)
• Immune System Disorders
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcers, and Colitis
• Leaky Gut Syndrome
• Low Sex Drive
• Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, Menopause, Estrogen and Progesterone Imbalances
• Thyroid Disorders
• Weight Gain
There are two ways in which arthritis can occur from elevated levels of cortisol and/or inflammation in the body.
High levels of cortisol suppress the body’s repair functions because it would rather spend the energy on fight-or-flight functions than in response to inflammation, since cortisol is also the anti-inflammatory hormone. In addition, inflammation in either the intestinal tract or from inflammatory chemicals circulating throughout the body due to poor diet or anti-inflammatory drugs triggers the release of an enzyme (aggrecanase) which actually eats the cartilage in joints and results in arthritis.
Back Pain, Neck Pain, and Headaches:
Elevated levels of cortisol can cause these symptoms in a variety of ways.
First, the nerves and muscles for fight-or-flight originate in the neck and lower back, and cortisol causes increased activity of these nerves and a subsequent tensing of associated muscles. The majority of headaches are the result of nerve, muscle, and spinal imbalance. Second, cortisol also impedes the body’s ability to repair connective tissue because it doesn’t want to spend the energy on it when the body is in fight-or-flight mode; so it can be very difficult to recover from an injury, or even to repair the effects of having your neck or back muscles constantly tensed from the elevated cortisol levels in the first place. Lastly — and this is really a doozy — cortisol can actually break down the ligaments in your body which hold your joints together, thus leading to all kinds of joint misalignment problems and injuries.
Candida Yeast Infections:
Yeast infections can arise either from (a) taking a prolonged course of antibiotics that kill the good bacteria in the intestinal tract along with the other bacteria you are infected with, or (b) from intestinal tract inflammation which also kills the good intestinal bacteria. The yeast cells are hardier that some of the other bacteria and a debilitated intestinal tract provide them an environment to thrive in.
Unfortunately, the yeast also thrives on sugar and will cause you to crave sugar, which can result in a craving for sugar and carbohydrates, weight gain, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), fatigue, and diabetes.
Unbalanced levels of cortisol, either too high or too low, alter the activity and chemistry of the brain and can result in depression. Of equal importance, 99% of the chemicals (neurotransmitters such as serotonin) that determine your mood are made in the intestinal tract from the food you eat, and only 1% of them are made in your brain. So if your intestinal tract is inflamed and unable to function normally, you may not be able to make enough of these chemicals to keep your mood stable.
Fight-or-flight requires a lot of energy, which means you want a lot of glucose or sugar to be available to your muscles. Cortisol provides this in three ways: first, by causing a breakdown of stored sugar in the liver to be released into the bloodstream; secondly, by lowering insulin production so the circulating sugar can’t be reabsorbed back into the liver; and lastly, by making the receptor sites on cells less sensitive to insulin. The obvious problem here is that if your cortisol level is elevated, you either won’t be able to make or to use your insulin, and you run the risk of becoming diabetic.
Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Adrenal Exhaustion:
Cortisol imbalances due to stress and/or inflammation can cause fatigue in several ways.
Because cortisol is designed to keep you alert in times of stress, it can cause insomnia, and the lack of quality sleep will make you tired. Cortisol also suppresses insulin production to keep the sugar available for muscles in a stress response, and can result in low blood sugar, which will also make you fatigued. Lastly, your adrenal glands can ultimately become exhausted from the constant demands placed on them to produce endless amounts of cortisol, usually as a response to chronic inflammation from a poor diet and/or over-use of anti-inflammatory drugs, and they simply wear out and produce too little cortisol, which will also result in fatigue.
This sequence usually results in chronic fatigue syndrome, which manifests many of the symptoms seen in cortisol imbalances including insomnia, depression, food cravings, weight gain, and muscle and joint pain.
Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Autoimmune Disease:
Autoimmune diseases all have one thing in common, which is that something has triggered the immune system to attack one type of tissue in the body. With fibromyalgia it is the muscles; in rheumatoid arthritis it’s the joints; in thyroiditis it’s the thyroid; and so on. This is the physiological equivalent of ‘friendly fire’.
Two potential scenarios for this immune system mistake can involve high cortisol levels and/or intestinal inflammation. In one, high cortisol levels rob the immune cells of a chemical that helps them tell foreign cells (e.g., bacteria and viruses) apart from the body’s own cells. The second is through leaky gut syndrome, where poorly-digested bits of protein leak out of pinholes in the intestinal wall and trigger an immune response.
Leaky gut syndrome comes after a prolonged period of intestinal tract inflammation, which causes a rise in cortisol. Add to this the combined effect of an over-worked immune system and immune cells deprived of the chemical that identifies foreign cells from the body’s own cells, and you have a perfect setting for an autoimmune attack.
Because cortisol is meant to suppress insulin production and lower our cells’ sensitivity to insulin so that sugar is available to the muscles for a stress response, excess cortisol will cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate. Since the brain’s primary fuel is sugar in the form of glucose, any imbalance in blood sugar will cause you to crave sweets and carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, potatoes, and pastries. In addition, when the adrenal glands are busy producing cortisol in response to stress and/or inflammation, they cannot adequately fulfill some of their other functions, such as producing aldosterone, a hormone that regulates the body’s mineral content. This means you might be low on magnesium, which will make you crave chocolate, or salt, which will make you crave chips, olives, or other salty processed foods.
In a fight-or-flight situation, you definitely want a lot of oxygenated blood available to your muscles, so cortisol will appropriately raise your blood pressure. Unfortunately, even when the cortisol is elevated because of inflammation rather than the need to outrun a charging rhinoceros, you will still end up with high blood pressure, and the constant pounding of the blood against the walls of the blood vessels can result in a heart attack or a stroke.
Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar):
This occurs when high levels of cortisol are suppressing the body’s production of insulin and you can’t absorb the sugars and carbohydrates you are eating, thus resulting in low blood sugar. The symptoms of this are fatigue, headaches, mood swings and irritability, as well as a craving for more sugar, which can in turn cause weight gain and, ultimately, diabetes.
Immune System Disorders:
When your body is stressed and in fight-or-flight mode, it doesn’t want to expend any energy for immune system functions that are of no importance until you’ve either fought off or run away from whatever is endangering you. After the stress is over, the body assumes you may have some injuries which require an immune response to fight infected wounds, at which point the immune system kicks in again. But as long as your body is producing cortisol, even if it is just in response to inflammation, the immune system can become suppressed.
Experiments have shown that cortisol can reduce white blood cell production by 38%, and that prolonged elevation of cortisol can damage the thymus gland which produces these immune cells.
Cortisol has its own circadian (daily) rhythm, and should be at its highest level in the morning when we are waking up and getting started with our day; by night time it should be very low. One of cortisol’s functions is to keep us very alert in times of danger, so high levels of cortisol at night will cause insomnia.
There are two types of insomnia. In the first, you have trouble falling asleep because the cortisol levels are already too high; in the second, you fall asleep but then wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. This second type occurs because either the elevated level of cortisol has lowered your blood sugar too much (see Diabetes), or it’s time for your body to repair connective tissue and it realizes that the intestinal tract is inflamed and it produces cortisol in response to the inflammation.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcers, and Colitis:
One of the first known effects of prolonged stress was the discovery that it would cause ulcers in rats; this was proved by Hans Selye in the 1930’s. Cortisol adversely affects the intestinal tract in two ways.
First, high cortisol levels shift the nervous system away from digestive function, since you won’t be eating and running or fighting at the same time (unless you are Mike Tyson eating your opponent’s ears). Secondly, cortisol impairs the body’s ability to repair itself because it doesn’t want to spend the energy on this activity when it needs it for the stress response. The end result is a progressive thinning and wearing away of the intestinal lining. So we have a double whammy: an inflamed intestinal tract lining from a poor diet and too many anti-inflammatory drugs, which is then aggravated by having your body produce still more cortisol in response to the intestinal inflammation.
Leaky Gut Syndrome:
After a prolonged period of intestinal tract inflammation and elevated levels of cortisol, the intestinal lining becomes so debilitated that microscopic pinholes occur, allowing bacterial, poorly-digested bits of protein, and hormones such as estrogen and progesterone to leak out of the intestinal wall. This will result in a response by the immune system as it tries to deal with the bacteria and figure out what the bits of protein are, and can cause some serious hormone imbalances as the hormones that were supposed to be eliminated in a bowel movement are now circulating throughout the body, where they can attach to hormone receptor sites on the breasts, ovaries, and uterus.
This endless cascade of high estrogen and progesterone can over stimulate the receptor sites on these cells and possibly trigger cancer.
Low Sex Drive:
Unbalanced cortisol levels either due to chronic stress and/or intestinal tract inflammation are bound to lead to a lower level of sexual energy, desire, and performance. There are several reasons for this.
Because your adrenal glands are so consumed with making cortisol, they will either get lazy about producing sex hormones or, more likely, your production of sex hormones will become suppressed because sex and fight-or-flight don’t match up very well. If your body is in stress response mode, stopping to have sex is no more likely to happen than if you were running or fighting for your life – which is exactly what your body is getting ready to do when cortisol levels rise. And since unbalanced cortisol levels can also cause insomnia, depression, and fatigue, the likelihood of feeling perky and sexy is also pretty slim.
Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, Menopause, Estrogen and Progesterone Imbalances:
Because cortisol production in response to stress and inflammation is such a high priority for your body, the adrenal glands will steal away much of the substance that is the essential building block for all hormone synthesis (pregnenalone). This means that while your adrenal glands are busy making all this cortisol, you can’t adequately make other hormones, which can lead to all kinds of imbalances.
Another problem is that if you have leaky gut syndrome, the excess hormones that your liver has processed and shipped to the intestinal tract to be expelled in a bowel movement are leaking out through the damaged intestinal tract lining (Leaky gut syndrome), and these active hormones will attach to the hormone receptors in breast, ovary and uterine cells, causing unbalanced activity in these tissues.
This has to be one of the most misunderstood disorders in the history of health care, and most attempts at treatment seek to alter symptoms instead of targeting possible causes.
Elevated levels of cortisol in response to stress and/or inflammation can affect thyroid gland function in several ways. For the thyroid gland to work properly it must receive a message from the pituitary gland and then make hormone conversions to produce a hormone, called T3, which must go to the liver before it can become useable. High cortisol levels can both alter pituitary function and prevent the conversion of thyroid hormone, so thyroid function can be compromised on either end of the process.
Far more overlooked is the fact that even if the thyroid hormone makes it to the liver intact to be further processed and released as a useable hormone, the liver ships 20% of the thyroid hormone to the intestinal tract in a deactivated form, where it becomes reactivated. So, you will be 20% low on thyroid hormone (a condition known as hypothyroidism), if the intestinal tract is inflamed, dysfunctional, and unable to reactivate the thyroid hormone, you will be.
The symptoms of low thyroid function are fatigue, feeling cold especially in the hands and feet, and depression. By not accounting for the 20% loss of thyroid hormone due to intestinal dysfunction, millions of women are being told by their doctors that their thyroid hormone levels are fine even though they have these symptoms, because their blood tests only show the level of thyroid hormone before it gets to the liver to be processed.
This goes hand and hand with the blood sugar problem of cortisol and diabetes, because the brain’s primary fuel is glucose or sugar. If you are not able to metabolize sugar properly, your brain will demand that you eat more foods that have sugar in them to feed itself. So now you are eating high-calorie carbohydrate foods that often are high in fat, and you will gain weight. Equally bad is the fact that these types of food cause systemic inflammation and the further production.