Dear Pharmacist: You've said that stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol and that causes weight gain and disease. I have lost my home, and I'm dealing with the emotional fallout and the anguish of scaling down and moving. How can I control cortisol as I deal with this grief? My good health is all I have left. -- M.L., Palm Beach, Fla.
Sorry about your loss. Cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands and helps regulate the speed at which you turn food into fuel, and hence your blood-sugar levels; it supports immune function and bone health. It's not a bad guy unless it gets too high, or flat-lines after prolonged stress.
Stress is by far the No. 1 reason that cortisol levels become elevated. Excessive amounts cause you to hold weight in your midsection (think belly fat). High cortisol means more infections and higher incidence of hypertension, osteoporosis (brittle bones), reflux, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke. Stress can make you terribly sick by upping your cortisol hormone. Conventional medicine's answer is usually a benzodiazepine-type of tranquilizer such as Xanax, Valium or Ativan which provides a quick fix.
Supplements help you with the stress response better because they don't cause addiction, and they can lower cortisol, unlike drugs. Reducing cortisol is good for your waistline. Even if you can't eliminate stress, and have to go through it, you can still improve your body's response to the stress. This is important. Make the word "adaptogen" your best friend because adaptogenic herbs are your best solution to stress. Four of my favorite are ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola and gotu kola.
Well-designed scientific studies have revealed undeniable stress-relieving qualities. You should not need all four; just pick one to try based on its other properties and potential side effects. Ask your doctor if they're right for you before buying them at the health food store. Research these herbs online to learn about them. It's OK to switch them out every few months. Adaptogens often take a few weeks to begin working.
Ashwagandha improves endurance, provides instant calm, fights fatigue, reduces inflammation and enhances sex drive. Panax ginseng also enhances sex drive, while improving energy levels, mental focus and well-being. Rhodiola, which thrives in freezing cold Siberia, improves stamina, cognitive function, melancholy and ability to cope. Gotu kola herb offers a mild, relaxing sense of virtual euphoria. Take gotu kola when you need it to kick back and relax, the way you might enjoy a glass of wine. Speaking of alcohol, this may be an effective stress-reducer but it's going to make a mess of your cortisol over time. I'd prefer you drink green tea, which provides instant calm in most people.
Treat yourself to massage. In 2005, University of Miami researchers reviewed some scientific studies and found that a single massage can reduce cortisol levels by an amazing 31 percent! Yoga is another way to find peace and calm. More meditation means less medication.
This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure your disease. Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. To ask her a question or to learn more about your health, visit DearPharmacist.com.