Cortisol: Good Stress, Bad Stress and Autophagy


 The Upside of Cortisol

Stress is often viewed as negative, however, there is a “good” kind of stress—called acute stress—that actually serves to make the body healthier. How? Because acute stress is a state where “the dose makes the poison.” The “poison” is produced from everyday business: the crazy schedules, deadlines, and hectic lifestyles of today which impact and induce the stress response. As a result, they also diminish our natural cellular detoxification process known as autophagy.

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone; it’s released from the adrenal glands in response to normal circumstances or stressors, such as waking up in the morning or feeling pressured to meet an important deadline. It’s also known to influence the body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct when in crisis. Cortisol has varied effects on the body’s normal processes—ranging from blood pressure and blood sugar regulation to managing the way in which the body utilizes carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It also works with the brain to balance moods, motivation, and feelings of fear or anxiety.

Whether the acute stressor is something common like participating in daily exercise, or more extreme, like running from a Saber-tooth tiger, here’s a scientific breakdown of the typical stress response:

  • When faced with a stressor, the adrenals secrete cortisol.
  • Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose; this supplies the large muscles with an immediate energy source, yet inhibits insulin production in order to prevent excess glucose from being stored in the body.
  • Epinephrine, cortisol’s counterpart hormone, increases the heart rate while cortisol narrows the arteries. Both of these actions encourage the heart to pump blood harder and faster.
  • Once the stressful situation is resolved, the hormone levels return to normal, along with heart rate, blood pressure, and all other systems returning to their usual, unstressed levels.
When the body is stressed for days or weeks on end, the brain may believe that pesky Saber-tooth tiger is still chasing you; in turn, the adrenal glands continue to pump out cortisol, and this subsequently derails the normal stress response. Eventually, the connection between the brain and the adrenal glands becomes deregulated and cortisol levels may start to plummet. Our bodies need sufficient cortisol to function properly and be healthy, however, there is a delicate balance to maintain since too much or too little cortisol can cause health problems and in turn, lead to the development of chronic disease.

Some common issues associated with high cortisol may include:

  • Weight gain
  • Problems with sleep
  • Bloating, gas, indigestion
  • Low testosterone & female hormone imbalance
  • Impaired immune health
  • Depression, confusion, difficulty focusing
  • Muscle loss

Low cortisol has been associated with:

  • Chronic pain
  • Fatigue
  • Inflammation
  • Impaired immune health
  • Unstable blood sugar
  • Unstable blood pressure

Cortisol and Weight Management

Balancing cortisol levels is a key factor in weight management, however, the right amount may be helpful for weight loss, whereas the wrong amount can be counterproductive. Cortisol increases appetite, which makes sense since energy and nutrients are expended during the physical response to acute stress. If the acute stress becomes chronic, there’s no resulting nutrient depletion and no need for replenishment; these elevated levels of cortisol can cause increased appetite and potential for weight gain, and this typically leads to visceral fat storage in the abdomen. So what does this mean for your physical health and weight loss goals? Well, it means that bringing cortisol to optimum levels for your own body is a pivotal step toward a much healthier you!

Balancing cortisol levels to control body weight relates closely to managing chronic stressors. Here are a few tips:

  • Talk about your stress with a friend, family member, or healthcare practitioner
  • Become a list writer and cross off your goals and to-do’s each day
  • Don’t be afraid to delegate
  • Say “no” when you need to
  • Learn how to create more relaxation in your life, perhaps through a practice like yoga and meditation
  • Participate in regular exercise
  • Eat a wide variety of nutrient-dense, whole foods. Supplement if deficient, and consider adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola, ashwagandha, lemon balm or holy basil which may help reset cortisol
  • Take appropriate amounts of caffeine and alcohol which may drive cortisol levels up
  • Don’t under-eat. Constant caloric restriction can increase cortisol which is why I support IFPC as a safer and more effective alternative

Good Stress, Bad Stress & Autophagy

Stress may be defined as the response of the body to any factor that overwhelms, or threatens to overwhelm, the compensatory ability to maintain homeostasis. We’ve made the case that a regulated amount of acute stress is a good thing, but how does it relate to cellular detoxification or autophagy? Again, it’s “the dose that makes the poison.” When the body is a little stressed, autophagy is turned “up,” and when stress is low, autophagy slows down. As the stress response is overwhelmed, most of us diminish the effectiveness of autophagy occurring within the body.

Remember, there are two common types of stress: acute and chronic. Acute stress involves both physical and emotional events, such as being frightened or put on the spot at work, running several sets of sprints, lifting heavy weights in the gym or my favorite: practicing fasting, such as IFPC. Chronic stress can also be physical and emotional, but it persists over a longer period of time. This stress would be prolonged anxiety concerning your job, financial worries, an annoying family member, frequent long-distance running, or general over-exercising. While acute stress may provide us with a range of health benefits, chronic stress has been linked to obesity, heart disease, depression, and a whole slew of other diseases.

When we exercise, our bodies go into stress-response mode, and the physical action of exercise causes microscopic tears in our muscles; this tearing of the muscular structure sets autophagy into motion to remove and repair the damage. In turn, your muscles become stronger and more resilient as a means of preparation for the stress that may occur the next time you put them through a physical action.

The result of an exercise session? Short-term stress for long-lasting benefits. A related benefit? Exercise helps burn fat. Since excess body fat clogs up the autophagy process, exercise is like a one-two autophagy punch—it improves the system by stressing the cells and getting fat out of the way. No matter your current age, exercise can slow the age-related decline in autophagy and produce a significant difference in offsetting muscle atrophy, preventing weight gain, and ultimately extending longevity.

Transforming Your Fear Into Results

Most people do not realize that stress may actually be good for autophagy. Stress, in the form of fear, can elicit an acute (or healthy) stress response, which produces cortisol; this promotes autophagy and creates more beneficial cellular components while also removing negative ones. Take, for example, exercise. One of the best ways to get past your fear of exercise, a new routine, or the prospect of change, is to prepare properly. Here, that means figuring out what works best you:

  1. Are you motivated by music? If so, download a new playlist.
  2. Will you be more accountable if you enlist a workout partner? If so, get a friend to ‘Glow’ with you.
  3. Do you find the gym intimidating, too far to get to or just not ready to let others see you sweat? If so, you can do your workout in the comfort of your own home.

The point is that you should think about what backdrop—whether environmental or interpersonal— that will help kindle your motivational fire. I’m confident that once you get into a groove, your fire will be fully stoked. That’s because once you see and feel the effects, you will want to experience more.

In my bestselling book, Glow15, I talk in detail about diet, exercise and lifestyle to maximize your autophagy. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Make sure you keep adding challenges to your lifestyle in order to give your body new and healthy stressors to assist in activating autophagy.

There is much more to learn about the way the body responds to various types of stress, as well as the extraordinary healing capabilities presented within the power and science of autophagy. If you haven’t already, grab your own copy of my book, Glow15, to read more about acute versus chronic stress, diet, exercise, and the various lifestyle modifications you can leverage as a means to activate your own autophagy! In the meantime, start cooking the Glow15 way with these tasty and FREE recipes!

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