The Paradox of Cortisol by Dr. Richard Weinstein

Everyone knows the terrible feelings that come with stress: worry, anxiety, the sense of being overwhelmed, and depression, but most of the time we blame our stress on the wrong things. We find fault with our jobs and relationships as a way of explaining our feelings of stress when, in fact, a more likely cause is an adrenal gland hormone imbalance due to our diets and/or the drugs we take. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands produce the fight-or-flight hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is also the hormone used to fight inflammation and inflammation has become the hottest topic in medical research. The paradox lies in the question of are we stressed because we are inflamed, or are we inflamed because we are stressed?

Our bodies have an elegant feedback loop for orchestrating our response to stress which consists of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain and the two adrenal glands that sit on top of each kidney. All of our senses are filtered through the hypothalamus so our experiences can be evaluated, and if the hypothalamus decides that a danger or stressor is present, it releases a hormone that goes to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland responds be secreting another hormone that goes to the adrenal glands to initiate the secretion of cortisol.

Cortisol has a global effect on nearly every system in the body for managing stress by either increasing or decreasing the functions of these systems in the quest for survival. Cortisol increases blood pressure and respiration so that more oxygenated blood can be quickly delivered to the muscles and it causes the liver to convert proteins into sugar (glucose) so the muscles have fuel. Cortisol decreases immune system, reproductive tract, digestive tract, and repair functions because there is no need to waste energy on these systems if you are running or fighting for your life. Once the stress is resolved, cortisol circulates back to the hypothalamus and the stress response is shut down.

All of this is great until we come upon the fact that cortisol is also the anti-inflammatory hormone that is secreted in response to any type of inflammation. Inflammation comes in two varieties: systemic inflammation which arises from diets high in omega 6 oils found in fast foods and processed foods which result in inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins; or specific inflammation of the intestinal tract due to the overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuphrophen, which can cause irritation and even death from bleeding. The preponderance of processed/fast food consumption in America is astonishing. Americans spend more that $110 billion a year on fast food, 90% of the American food budget is spent on processed/fast foods, on any given day &Mac185; of Americans eat fast food and since 1970, there has been a five fold increase in fast food consumption in children and teenagers. Couple that with the multi-billion dollar use of nonsteriodal anti inflammatory drugs, and it’s easy to see why inflammation is so prevalent in America.

So now we have the adrenal glands pumping out cortisol at abnormally high rates to combat the inflammation, but the body’s systems respond exactly as if there was a fight-or-flight stress response happening. The only difference is that while fight-or-flight is meant to be short-term, the American diet and drug use is turning it into a chronic, lifelong event of excessive cortisol production. The real Catch-22 is that cortisol also makes us insulin resistant, which means we cannot effectively utilize insulin and so we crave sugar and risk diabetes. Cortisol also makes us crave fats, store fat in our abdomen, and disrupts our ability to control appetite. And lastly, cortisol causes a depletion of another adrenal hormone that regulates our mineral content and can result in cravings for salt. The cravings for sugar, fats, and salt, the staples of the processed/fast food industries, results in the high omega 6 oil diet which causes a vicious cycle of elevated levels of cortisol.

The end result is that 60% of Americans are overweight, 30% are obese, there are 800,000 new cases of diabetes annually, Caucasian children born in 2000 have a 33% chance of being diabetic by the time they are twenty years old, and for African American and Hispanic children, the chances go up to 50%. Other cortisol-related health problems include depression, of which 32 million Americans suffer from, insomnia which affects 56% of Americans, and immune system disorders since cortisol can cause a 38% reduction of immunity T-cells.

Dr. Richard Weinstein is the author of The Stress Effect: Discover the Connection Between Stress and Disease and Reclaim Your Health (Avery, $14.95, 2004). For more info, visit: