Dr. Robert W. Horovitz, B.Sc., ND
What’s Slowing You Down?
Our society is over worked. It is no secret that stress is a huge correlative killer. In nature we have evolved to use our stress response to our advantage; to hunt, run away, and simply put, to survive. A properly functioning stress response is essential to our continual promotion of lifelong wellness. Problems arise when either too much stress hormone (cortisol) is produced or when we have been chronically stressed for so long that that body loses its ability to produce cortisol as well on a need basis. How does one measure their ability to cope with stress and what treatment options are available? Before answering, it is important to better understand why proper cortisol control is so important.
When cortisol is released, we experience certain reproducible physiological changes; our lungs begin to allow for increased oxygen capacity, our heart rate increases, our vision becomes more focused (to name a few). These qualities make for an excellent survival tool, which we still take advantage of today in some ways; athletic perseverance for example. However, in a corporate setting (when someone is sitting for a large duration of their day), these physiological changes can actually do us harm. Instead of running or using these changes advantageously, people tend to stay seated and internalize their frustrations/stressors for the remainder of their work day.
If we do not have proper outlets for stress management, the physiological changes from increased cortisol can lead to elevations in blood pressure and blood sugar. High blood pressure (hypertension) is called the silent killer, because over time it can lead to massive cardiovascular incidents such as heart attacks or strokes. Increases in blood sugar lead to increased cravings for sweets and/or simple carbohydrates. Ultimately, you can see how stress can contribute to weight gain and/or difficulty in losing desired weight. Weight gain is associated with increases in disease risk almost across the board, including diabetes.
When assessing someone’s ability to cope with stress, there are several measures to be taken. Symptoms such as low energy, trouble falling or staying asleep, moodiness may all be indicators that you are burdened with stress. Speak to your licensed naturopathic doctor regarding a thorough case history and dietary analysis. Time management and proper nutrition is essential for supporting stress. Vitamin C and B5 in particular are both required by the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Eating green, leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are all great sources. Camu camu is one of the richest sources of vitamin C known.
I offer my patients a four point salivary cortisol test that is worth considering. Cortisol can be measured by your medical doctors through a blood sample; however this only tells you what the hormone is doing at that particular instant. A four point salivary cortisol test measures cortisol at four different times of the day and plots a graph so that information regarding your daily cortisol output may be evaluated. The connection between stress and sleep is quite apparent. When looking at a four point cortisol result, the curve should show cortisol being highest in the morning and lowest in the evening. Your primary sleep hormone melatonin has an inverse relationship with cortisol. That is, it is highest in the evening and lowest in the morning.
If a person is chronically stressed and loses their ability to adequately produce cortisol when the body needs it, this pattern is thrown off balance. Indirectly people resort to artificial energy sources such as sugar and/or caffeine. These can also dramatically interfere with good quality, restful sleep. Cortisol is also by far one of the most powerful natural anti-inflammatory compounds produced by the body. Since cortisol is typically highest in the morning, people tend to feel worse as the day progresses when they are not feeling well.
Herbs can be used to help; notably herbs known as adaptogens. Since there is a long list of adaptogens, each with their own unique properties and constituents, it is important that you always consult with a licensed naturopathic doctor regarding any herbs that you take. It is vital to obtain proper assessment, dosing, duration, and probably most importantly, follow up as treatments typically change as a person progresses through phases. Health food stores across the nation are instrumental to our overall well being, but they are not medical clinics. A fantastic relationship with a knowledgeable health food store clerk/owner, should not take the place of your overseeing health care provider. Seek out professional advice, inquire about salivary hormone testing, and most importantly don’t stress it.