July 11, 2012

Cortisol: How the Main Stress Hormone Robs You of Memory & More (Plus Three Practices to Prevent It).

Cortisol Switcheroo Part III

“Cortisol switch” is when you flip from the cortisol love, which is where cortisol is helping you be productive, helping you focus, helping you feel on top of the world and capable of anything, similar to the first blessed moments after drinking a cup of regular coffee… to the cortisol hate.

You hit the wall. It takes 16 or so minutes, on average. You get anxious, irritable, and jittery. Blood sugar drops. You get less smart. (I’m defining “cortisol switch” again because if you have high cortisol, memory starts to slide. Your hippocampus is place in your brain where you integrate memory and high cortisol shrinks the hippocampus. Link here to read Part One and Part Two of the Cortisol Switcharoo series.)

The Neuroendocrine Back Story

Here’s what’s actually happening on a molecular level, as the brilliant Brendon Burchard reminded me during a discussion this past weekend of Physiology 101. When you are stressed for positive or negative reasons, your brain interprets this as a threat—whether it’s a tiger chasing you or a work deadline or, in my case, packing school lunches. Your brain sends a memo through your neurons and then blood to your adrenal glands to pump up the volume on two key players: adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is a neurotransmitter, and it drops after 16 minutes, while cortisol stays high. When adrenaline drops and cortisol stays high, you’ve got yourself a cortisol switch.

My Theory on How this Devolves your Best Intentions

I have a theory that chronic and repetitive cortisol switches, accumulated over time, lead to cortisol resistance, a phenomenon whereby you have high cortisol in the blood and low cortisol inside your cells. Net effect? You feel wired but tired. Recently, scientists have been documenting cortisol resistance (1, 2), akin to other hormone resistances such as insulin.

No! Telomeres Shorten Too

Another problem with excess cortisol production is that it shortens your telomeres. We know this from the robust work of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Laureate and Professor at the University of California at San Francisco, on telomeres and stress. Telomeres are the caps on chromosomes that keep them from deterioration, and they’ve emerged as one of the key biomarkers of aging. One study after after another from Dr. Blackburn’s lab and others has shown that excess stress, particularly the perception of excess stress, shortens and harms our telomeres (3-5).*

In particular, Dr. Blackburn’s group has documented that excess cortisol response to stress is associated with short telomeres (4). High cortisol begets short telomeres which begets accelerated aging.

It’s not pretty. Fortunately, there’s something that we can do about it: We can lower our response to stress and thereby the process of accelerated aging that is the shadow side of this important stress hormone. We can get proactive, not reactive.

I consider telomeres to be analogous to natal chi—the form of life force that we receive at conception but in a fixed quantity, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Natal chi cannot be supplemented so must must use it more slowly. Conserve it. Also true for your telomeres. We need to manage stress skillfully, keep cortisol from getting too high and/or too low, and keep our telomeres long.

More Practices to Prevent the Cortisol Switch

Today, in Part 3 of my series on the Cortisol Switch, I’ve add a few more practices to help you wrangle stress, cortisol, and limit the collateral damage of the cortisol switch.

1. Lock into aromas that trigger the “calm response.”
I learned this one from genius Lisa Byrne over at WellGroundedLife.com. She taught me that certain scents help you calm down, such as cedar wood, frankincense and sandalwood. These scents travel from your nose straight into your brain, and tap into your hypothalamus to trigger a calm response. This is crucial, because you can’t be in both a calm and a stress response. It’s like a toggle switch, Lisa taught me. If you can increase the flip of the switch to the calm response, by any means necessary, you can linger there and lower cortisol when it is excessively high.

2. Wean off and pay off the coffee debt.
It’s like a high-interest loan that you need to pay back. Don’t become a debtor. Use coffee medicinally or not at all. It’s very hard for your adrenal glands to be in the full “repair” conversation if you’re taking out a daily loan against them. There’s little to no chance to heal.

There are many other practices I’d love to share with you (about 250, actually). Recently, I met a new BFF named Dr. Jennifer Landa, MD. Dr. Jen is a pioneering hormone expert in Florida, and she gave me two more juicy tips for cortisol.

Dr. Jen and I were sharing a glass of wine last night (note to self: alcohol raises cortisol and I have to limit myself, although I don’t want to be a complete monk about all of this. Do you?), and she mentioned a bit of genius insight with me. Here it is (Practice #3):

3. More self care if resentful.
What’s your minimum effective dose of self care? If you’re resentful, which I suspect raises cortisol, you probably need more self care.

I’m paraphrasing Dr. Jen but you get the point. I love this practice because it shifts the energy around resentment. It shifts us out of a place of blame. In my case, my resentment is usually directed toward my darling husband or kids, whom I blame for wanting something they probably completely deserve—such as my full attention—and I need to take the feeling of resentment as a message that my self-care needs amplification. Plus, my self care is my responsibility, not theirs. Only you can manage your self care. Don’t expect others to create the space for it. Claim it for yourself. Claim your minimally effective dose of self care, every day, that tips the scales away from resentment.

More Dr. Jen Wisdom: No One Cheers Over your New Boundary

Dr. Jen didn’t just create just one “a-ha!” moment but many. Here’s another. No one cheers when you set a boundary. Get used to it. People love it when you overprovide, overpromise and overdeliver, particularly your spouse, kids, work, clients.

It’s time to notice the overproviding. Women are wired to do this. It’s time to own it, then change it. Overproviding burns us out. Shut down the overproviding machine. The change starts with healthy boundaries and all those people who enjoy your overproviding will not be cheering you on as you take from them the things they can do—and need to be doing—for themselves. But I’m cheering you on as you set your bodacious boundaries, and your adrenal glands will be relieved to step off the treadmill of excess stress and cortisol swings. And if you want more practices, link here to Part 1 and Part 2 of Cortisol Switcharoo.

Another reason to set bodacious boundaries? Keep your telomeres long! Slow down aging and take care of your hippocampus.

Now I’d Love to Hear from You (It Lowers My Adrenaline and Cortisol)

Do you feel that you struggle with high adrenaline/high cortisol and the “switch?”

Do you wonder if your telomeres are short and stubby?

Have you had them checked? Want to hear more about that?


1. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, Miller GE, Frank E, Rabin BS, Turner RB. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Apr 17;109(16):5995-9. Epub 2012 Apr 2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22474371

2. Menke A, Arloth J, Pütz B, Weber P, Klengel T, Mehta D, Gonik M, Rex-Haffner M, Rubel J, Uhr M, Lucae S, Deussing JM, Müller-Myhsok B, Holsboer F, Binder EB. Dexamethasone Stimulated Gene Expression in Peripheral Blood is a Sensitive Marker forGlucocorticoid Receptor Resistance in Depressed Patients. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012 Jul;37(8):1972. doi: 10.1038/npp.2012.21. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22699688

3. Daubenmier J, Lin J, Blackburn E, Hecht FM, Kristeller J, Maninger N, Kuwata M, Bacchetti P, Havel PJ, Epel E. Changes in stress, eating, and metabolic factors are related to changes in telomerase activity in a randomized mindfulness intervention pilot study. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Jul;37(7):917-28. Epub 2011 Dec 14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22169588

4. Tomiyama AJ, O’Donovan A, Lin J, Puterman E, Lazaro A, Chan J, Dhabhar FS, Wolkowitz O, Kirschbaum C, Blackburn E, Epel E. Does cellular aging relate to patterns of allostasis? An examination of basal and stress reactive HPA axis activity and telomere length. Physiol Behav. 2012 Apr 12;106(1):40-5. Epub 2011 Nov 28. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22138440

5. Parks CG, Miller DB, McCanlies EC, Cawthon RM, Andrew ME, DeRoo LA, Sandler DP. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. Telomere length, current perceived stress, and urinary stress hormones in women. 2009 Feb;18(2):551-60. Epub 2009 Feb 3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19190150

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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