Elaine Orabona Foster, Ph.D., ABPP
Here is a topic that would normally make your eyes glaze over and work like a fast-acting sleeping pill. So why would I risk writing a post about it on my fledgling blog? It is because while the topic itself may be boring, the effect it can have on your every day life can be striking. If you want a complicated, jargon-based explanation, don’t read any further. On the other hand, if you have asked yourself any of the following questions, then read on:
Question 1: Why am I forgetting things lately?
Question 2: Why do I keep gaining weight even though I am watching my calories?
Question 3: Why do I seem to be getting sick more often?</p>
Question 4 (For guys): Why do I feel less sexually excited–or worse, why am I having problems with erections?
There could be one single answer to all four questions–because they can all have the same cause……
I first learned about this phenomenon during a class sponsored by Harvard University as part of a psychopharmacology program. “Whoa!” you say. “I just checked into your blog for a little fun and information–you’re intro was right–this is BORING! OK, instead of talking about the science, why don’t we instead play a little game of Sherlock Holmes. Let’s talk about a women named Cathy, but you probably have friends or family who are just like her.
Cathy is a 29 year-old female. She is a very hard worker and is passionate about her job as a paralegal. She gets into work early; she leaves late. Cathy skips lunch complaining, “I would never get my work done if I took lunch.” When she gets sick, she says, “I can’t stay home, they need me at work. I know the place won’t collapse if I’m not there, but it sure feels like it would.” Ironically, Cathy has found that lately she is missing pages in the copies she is binding for upcoming trials. Sometimes she finds a critical page still lying on the copy machine after she has spent an hour looking for it in the pile of papers on her desk. In the morning, she feels frenzied because she slept a little later than she should, and so she only has minutes before she must be out the door. She doesn’t intend to sleep in but she had such a hard time falling asleep the night before, that she wakes up late–feeling exhausted. “Oh my God, now I can’t find my keys,” she exclaims as she grabs her bag and attempts to head for the door. Cathy spends 15 minutes looking for her keys, perspiring and cursing herself for her carelessness only to find she had absent-mindedly left them in the closet while she was changing hand bags. As she pulls out onto the street, she forgets she had momentarily placed her coffee cup on the roof of her car. The guy in the lane next to her motions up and mouths the words, “You have a cup on your roof!” Cathy can feel her face get hot as she blushes from embarrassment. Another thing that she finds upsetting–she is gaining weight. She blames her work schedule for not having enough time to exercise, but why does most of the weight seem to be going to her gut? “Pretty soon people are going to start asking me if I’m pregnant,” she frets. And speaking of her stomach, Cathy seems to be getting acid indigestion every day even though she takes antacids pretty regularly.
As Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps Dr. Watson, what do you think might be the one thread that unifies all of Cathy’s ills?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands which rest on top of the kidneys. These adrenal glands receive the message from the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to start or stop the flow of cortisol. Cortisol levels rise in direct response to acute stress. It is classically associated with the fight or flight response, but it also works in a daily rhythm to regulate blood sugar, fats, blood pressure and the immune system. When you are under stress, it has immediate effects which can save your life when you need quick bursts of energy, but if it continues to “spill” and overload your system because you are living a Cathy-life style, then it can wear down the connections between the nerve cells in your brain making it harder to store and remember things. It can cause weight gain and weaken your immune system, leaving you with what I like to call “(F)EARSOME FIGHT OR FLIGHT” hormone effects which leave you:
FORGETFUL, FAT (bellied), FATIGUED, and FREQUENTLY FLYING to the doctor or pharmacy for anything from recurrent colds to headaches, to upset stomach–really almost any illness resulting from a weakened immune system. For guys, there is a another effect, FLACCID.
If you notice some of these same patterns in your life, it may be time to consider the possible impact of excess cortisol on your mind and body. It can also give you a handle on the reasons why you might be suffering from the more common “FEARSOME” hormone effects, and perhaps reduce your fears long enough to make some life changes that will reduce your cortisol burden. Surprise! Exercise (especially quick, high-energy activity) turns out to be one great way to burn off excess cortisol. Vitamin C, DHEA, and B vitamins can be helpful diet supplements. Also, give yourself some rest and take time to unwind– and don’t feel guilty about it because it is part of your “cortisol care.”
Of course, there can be other reasons for memory loss, weight gain, fatigue and illness and you should always consult your doctor for more definitive help. But for more information about cortisol and some ideas about how to reduce its negative effects, you can review these links: