by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D
Got kids (or are you about to have kids)? Then you've got stress! If you have stress, then you also have cortisol, and you need to know what to do about it - because excess exposure to cortisol (the body's primary stress hormone) is associated with
As mentioned above, cortisol is the body's primary stress hormone. Under stressful circumstances (like when a lion charges at you from out of the bushes), cortisol is part of the body's "fight-or-flight" reaction, where it helps to regulate carbohydrate metabolism, cardiovascular function, and immune system activity. In this way, a small amount of cortisol is released, for a short period of time (enough time to get away from the lion). Under conditions of chronic stress, however, cortisol exposure is prolonged - and bad things happen to your health (see the partial list above).
The scientific literature shows quite clearly that there are three main groups of people who are likely to have elevated cortisol levels:
You can get a good idea of your own cortisol exposure by taking a 20-question interactive "Cortisol Self Test"
Everybody! But especially women!
Men and women are known to respond to stress with pretty much the same cortisol response. This means that when both men and women are stressed-out, their cortisol levels go up, and when the stress goes away, their cortisol levels come back down. The differences between men and women in stress response come not from physiology, but from psychology. Research from the University of California at San Francisco shows us that women tend to get stressed-out by different things (family and kids) than men do (careers). Evidence from studies at Goteberg University in Sweden show us that women also are exposed to more hours of stress in a given day then are their male counterparts. This means that working men and women will have similar cortisol levels at work, but upon returning home for the evening, women still had elevated cortisol levels, while those in men fell back top normal ranges. This probably indicates that the women had additional sources of stress at home (laundry, dinner, childcare) compared to the men (who came home to relax).
Aside from the strong link between elevated cortisol and obesity, diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, and many other chronic conditions, there is also growing evidence that stress/cortisol exposure during pregnancy may pass an increased risk for certain health problems onto children.
In a variety of animal studies, elevated cortisol levels (such as those that might be seen during "normal" emotional distress in humans) have been linked to high blood pressure, memory problems, immune suppression, and mood disturbances in both pregnant mothers and their children. Researchers believe that the excess cortisol produced by the mother's stressful experiences may influence cortisol metabolism during the baby's crucial development periods.
Luckily, there are a variety of approaches that can be extremely effective in managing stress and controlling cortisol levels. In The Cortisol Connection, I talk about a comprehensive cortisol-control program called "SENSE" (for Stress management, Exercise, Nutrition, Supplementation, and Evaluation). In a perfect world, we'd all be doing each and every step of the SENSE program - but in the imperfect world in which we live, doing any of these steps will be a step in the right direction.