Cortisol: The Overlooked Link to Your Health

For the past week now, I've been reading Simon Sinek's New York Times Bestseller, Leaders Eat Last. The book is loaded with case studies in various scenarios, which all come together to highlight the importance of proper leadership. Whether it be tribal groups, corporate settings, or just with friends in general, it's important to show genuine trust and care to those that surround you... if you intend on being a good leader, that is.

A chapter in Sinek's work that really stood out to me was titled, The Big C, the C representing cortisol.

If you don't already know, cortisol is known as the "stress hormone" within our bodies. Although essential to our existence, elevated cortisol levels can be detrimental to our lives if we do not manage our stress effectively. Here's a quick excerpt from Sinek's book in regards to cortisol's impact on the human body:

"Like the other selfish chemicals, cortisol can help us survive, but it isn't supposed to be in our system all the time. It wreaks havoc with our glucose metabolism. It also increases blood pressure and inflammatory responses and impairs cognitive ability...Cortisol increases aggression, suppresses our sex drive and generally leaves us feeling stressed out. And here's the killer - literally. Cortisol prepares our bodies to react suddenly - to fight or run as circumstances demand. Because this takes a lot of energy, when we feel threatened, our bodies turn off nonessential functions, such as digestion and growth. Once the stress has passed, these systems are turned on again. Unfortunately, the immune system is one of the functions that the body deems nonessential, so it shuts down during cortisol bursts."

In today's world where communication through cell phones and computers can happen within seconds, urgency is created just through the deadlines that seem to constantly surround us. With urgency comes the onset of anxiety and a spike in cortisol. If you combine today's fast-paced lifestyle along with a lack of physical activity, and poor dietary habits, it's no wonder statistics on obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are rising at an alarming rate. With the advances that we continue to make on an everyday basis in the fields of exercise and nutrition, shouldn't we have a grasp on controlling this epidemic?

Here's a quick list of people that come to mind when I think of individuals in a cortisol-rich environment:

  • Sleep-deprived college students during finals week.
  • Corporate employees working on projects with upcoming deadlines.
  • Employees with the fear of being laid off in the near future.
  • Children that are bullied, whether it be in-person or online.
  • Parents of new-born babies that suffer from sleepless nights on a consistent basis.
  • Individuals that struggle with self-image and have low self-esteem

Obviously, there are many more examples than the six listed above, but you get the idea. If these people are unable to manage the stress and negativity that has been created within there lives, how could we possibly expect them to live healthy lives?

The "golden rule" to weight-loss across the internet and gyms throughout the country today is via the ratio, 70% nutrition and 30% exercise. I've been guilty of saying this thousands of times over the past couple of years. While it's great that we heavily emphasize nutritional habits, is this ratio accurate for all walks of life today? Is it initially more critical to relieve and minimize stress levels that are developed during the 8 hours of the 9-5 work shift, or count daily macronutrients and total calories? I'd argue the former should be the main spotlight. 

The more I think about it, the more I believe the ratio should be 100% stress reduction, and once we get to that point, focus on the 70-30 ratio stated above. If we're just focusing strictly on two out of three of these factors, there's a good chance we're missing the boat and aren't maximizing our potential from a health standpoint.

If you can take just one thing away from this post, I hope that you recognize the importance of configuring your environment in order to prevent high cortisol outbreaks. A happy life is a healthy life, especially now that we see the harm cortisol can cause.