Why is cor­ti­sol so im­por­tant?

The Tribune (NZ) - - YOUR HEALTH - WITH AU­THOR AND NU­TRI­TIONAL BIO­CHEMIST DR LIBBY Email your ques­tions for Dr Libby to ask.dr­libby@fair­fax­me­dia.co.nz. Please note, only a se­lec­tion of ques­tions can be an­swered.

There have been a num­ber of ques­tions re­cently about cor­ti­sol. This week, Dr Libby has grouped a num­ber of th­ese to­gether.

What is the role of cor­ti­sol in the body? Why is it im­por­tant? I’ve been hear­ing a lot about it lately. Thanks, Joan.

Hi Joan. Cor­ti­sol is a pow­er­ful anti-in­flam­ma­tory agent in the body, as well as play­ing a role in im­mune sys­tem and blood glu­cose reg­u­la­tion. It is also one of our stress hor­mones. The hu­man body makes two main stress hor­mones. They are adrenalin and cor­ti­sol. Adrenalin drives the short-term stress re­sponse which in the past sig­nalled to the body that our life was in dan­ger. But to­day, we make adrenalin pri­mar­ily due to caf­feine con­sump­tion and our per­cep­tion of pres­sure and ur­gency. Be­cause th­ese lat­ter two sce­nar­ios are con­stant and re­lent­less for many peo­ple, adrenalin never switches off. This leads to (among many other things) chronic in­flam­ma­tion. The body can’t with­stand this so ex­ces­sive amounts of cor­ti­sol are then made.

Cor­ti­sol is our chronic stress hor­mone. In other words, we tend to make too much of it when we are stressed for a long time. His­tor­i­cally, the only long-term stresses hu­mans had were floods, famines and wars; all sce­nar­ios where food may have been scarce.

To­day, our long-term stress tends to come from re­la­tion­ship or fi­nan­cial wor­ries, or health or weight con­cerns. How­ever, be­cause cor­ti­sol was de­signed to save your life when food was scarce, even though food may be abun­dant for you to­day, cor­ti­sol sends a mes­sage to ev­ery cell in your body that your me­tab­o­lism needs to be slowed down so that those pre­cious fat stores can keep you go­ing un­til food re­turns.

Can you ex­plain the link be­tween stress, cor­ti­sol and weight gain? Are they re­lated? Kind re­gards, Maude

Hi Maude. If we re­mem­ber that we are com­pletely geared for sur­vival and that cor­ti­sol tells ev­ery cell of the body that food is scarce, an­other of its roles is to slow down your meta­bolic rate. It does this by driv­ing catabolism – break­ing your mus­cles down. Mus­cles use more en­ergy than body fat so the less mus­cle mass you have, the slower your meta­bolic rate will be.

A slower me­tab­o­lism leads you to burn body fat for en­ergy far more slowly then you have in the past, as cor­ti­sol is de­signed to make sure that you sur­vive this per­ceived pe­riod of famine.

How does tak­ing time to do ac­tiv­i­ties that lower stress, such as na­ture walk­ing, help lower cor­ti­sol and thus as­sist with weight loss? Thanks, Lyn­dall

Hi Lyn­dall. Man­ag­ing stress in­volves dif­fer­ent strate­gies for dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

How­ever, com­mon threads in­clude a re­duc­tion in caf­feine con­sump­tion (caf­feine drives adrenalin pro­duc­tion, our short­term stress hor­mone), in­cor­po­rat­ing a breath-fo­cused prac­tice such as yoga, med­i­ta­tion, tai chi or Pi­lates, as di­aphrag­matic breath­ing ac­ti­vates the calm­ing arm of the ner­vous sys­tem, known as the parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem (PNS).

Dr Libby has a new range of food-based nu­tri­tional sup­ple­ments. Visit www.bioblends.co.nz for more in­for­ma­tion. See dr­libby.com for her blog.

Dr Libby is a nu­tri­tional bio­chemist, best-sell­ing au­thor and speaker. The ad­vice con­tained in this col­umn is not in­tended to be a sub­sti­tute for direct, per­son­alised ad­vice from a health pro­fes­sional.

Cor­ti­sol is a long-term stress hor­mone which we used to make when food was scarce. To­day stresses tend to be fi­nan­cial or re­la­tion­ship wor­ries which can last for a long time.

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