The "Normal" Stress Response
There you are, a zebra strolling across the African savanna. You're minding your own business, maybe looking for some tender young grasses to satisfy your appetite, when suddenly A LION COMES CHARGING TOWARD YOU FROM THE BUSHES! This is the classic scenario used to describe the stress response, otherwise known as the "fight-or-flight" response. In reaction to the charging lion, your body quickly paces itself through a series of neurological, biochemical, hormonal, and physiological actions, each of which is designed to help you run away from that lion and survive for another day.
In the case of the zebra, the stress response runs its complete course, from start to finish, in a relatively short period of time. The stress occurs (the charging lion), which causes the zebra's brain and hormone system to release a series of stress hormones (the stress response), which enables it to fight off the lion or run away from it (the fight-or-flight response). After getting away from the lion, the zebra's stress hormones return to normal—end of story.
Unfortunately, we humans aren't so lucky. The vast majority of our daily stressors come from things that are much scarier than vicious lions—things like monthly mortgage payments, credit card bills, project deadlines, traffic jams, family commitments.… The list goes on. The major problem with our modern-day stressors is that they are less easy to escape from than the charging lion. The things that cause us stress today are difficult to fight off and impossible to run away from—and they also seem to keep coming back again and again. This unfortunate situation puts us in the position of being stuck midway through the normal stress response, where stress hormones are chronically elevated.
In this scenario, our modern, fast-paced, high-stress lifestyles cause us to become stuck between steps B and C, creating what can be referred to as the "Type C" personality: a victim of chronic stress and elevated cortisol. You have probably heard of the "Type A" and "Type B" personalities. Type A's are stereotyped as high-strung stress monsters, and Type B's are cast as laid-back folks who always roll with the punches. It may be obvious to you that nobody is either a "pure" Type A or Type B personality; rather, we are all a blend of the two, some with a bit more "A" and others with a bit more "B" thrown in.
Unfortunately, we are all vulnerable to chronic stress and can become a Type C personality if we aren't careful to control either our exposure to stress or the way in which our bodies respond to stress. The "C" in the Type C designation also refers to the primary stress hormone—cortisol—which is elevated during periods of high stress. When we encounter something (anything) that causes us to feel stress, our cortisol levels go up. If we experience stressful events on a regular basis and are unable to effectively rid ourselves of the stressor, our cortisol levels stay constantly elevated above normal levels.
Yes, you may say, bills, traffic, and the demands of work and family are all things that cause us to worry and to feel stress, but they're not exactly as life-threatening as a hungry lion bearing down on you—or are they? In cases of acute stress—someone sneaking up behind you and shouting "BOO!"—there are probably no long-term health consequences. In cases of chronic stress, however, when you ruminate, obsess, and continually mull over the "what if's" of a stressful situation, you put yourself into the Type C condition of having chronically elevated cortisol levels.
Over the long term, elevated cortisol levels can be as detrimental to overall health as elevated cholesterol is for heart disease or excessive blood sugar is for diabetes. Aside from that, elevated cortisol levels make you fat, kill your sex drive, shrink your brain, squelch your immune system, and generally make you feel terrible. So what to do?
Luckily, you have lots of choices. The easiest choice of all is to do nothing (like most people) and let chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels slowly break down your bodily defenses and increase your risk for disease. The more difficult choices are to do something—about either your stress level, the way you handle stress, or how your body responds to stressful situations. There have been at least a gazillion self-help books and empowering seminars on the general topic of "stress management," so you'll get very little of that here. Suffice it to say that stress is a "bad thing" and stress management is a "good thing"—but because of the complexities of the topics of psychological and emotional coping, developing supportive relationships, and honoring your inner self (all of which have been dealt with effectively in other books), this book will stick to some of the more concrete and practical approaches to dealing with stress: diet, exercise, and supplements.
Before we get too far into a discussion of what you can do to get a handle on your chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels, let's talk briefly about what stress is and how it relates to your cortisol levels and overall health profile.