Cortisol and Stress

What is Stress? Scientifically, stress is defined as a negative condition, any negative condition that can have an impact on one’s mental and physical well-being. As one of the most ambiguous body conditions humans or any other organism can develop, it is very hard to detect as well. We know that stress causes numerous diseases, such as depression or PTSD (which is just literally ‘Stress Disorder’). But since all diseases and hazardous body conditions are caused by the ‘abnormal functioning of any body part’, wouldn’t it be elementary for stress to have an indicator as well?

As for everything, science has the answer. We don’t exactly know what causes stress, for the sheer complexity of the psychological and physical aspects allow us to be as clueless and astounded as any other man on Earth. Somehow, because we are such ‘sophisticated’ and ‘highly developed’ organisms, namely the highest on the evolutionary chain, our body responds to psychological stress the same way it does with physical stress. From a doctor’s, or a scientist’s point of view, this makes things dreadfully confusing. So we don’t know exactly what the reason could be, but we can take a guess on what stress causes. Stressful conditions, such as traumatic experiences or work pressure, evoke an increase in a certain steroid hormone. Subdivided into the glucocorticoids, we know about it as ‘Cortisol’.

As mentioned above, cortisol is a steroid hormone, which means that it is synthesized from cholesterol. Secreted in the Adrenal Cortex, it is one of the most major stress hormones in the body. Its primary function is to redistribute glucose – the body’s way of saying ‘energy’ – to regions of the body that need it the most, such as the brain or major muscles, during a fight-or-flight response. It also suppresses the immune system in a time of need, becoming the cause of reduced immune response during highly stressful situations. But just because it might make us catch a cold easier doesn’t mean that it’s all bad. On the contrary, if cortisol didn’t exist to push back our immune system a little during the time of our prehistoric ancestors, they wouldn’t have been able to gain enough strength while trying to run from terrifying predators. Nothing in the human body exists without a cause! (Except maybe the appendix, but science is working on it)

Of course, cortisol isn’t the sole hormone that stress affects. Other hormones such as norepinephrine (a close relative of epinephrine, or, ‘Adrenaline’) also indicate the effects of stress. But as for cortisol, it is the most well-known hormone with such relevance. Also, unlike norepinephrine which takes up a variety of functions in the human body, therefore more prone to fluctuations of level, cortisol is utilized for a relatively small number of functions – most of them somehow related to stress response in one way or another.

So how do we detect stress from cortisol? Well, first we will need some bodily fluids and a way to analyze them. That’s the hard part. Theoretically, scientists have developed ways to detect cortisol levels from saliva, but we know real life doesn’t work like that. The problem with bodily samples is the fact that the concentration rate, despite it being a ‘homogenous’ mixture, may differ in certain areas of the body. In the case of hormones, it is more so because usually, not only are hormones secreted in particular small areas before being transported to the sites of need, they travel primarily through blood vessels, one of the most ineffective ways to travel. The one-way roads that have to travel all the way to the tips of our toes, well, not a surprise if the levels fluctuate a bit depending on where you stick the needle in, right?

Back to the topic of detecting cortisol from bodily fluids, once reliable samples are gained, the rest is pretty simple. Using one of the most effective analyzing techniques known to man, known as the antigen-antibody technique, the cortisol markers will attach themselves to the antibodies. And there you have your cortisol levels. What is left is for you to compare the patterns to your average cortisol fluctuations. Blood (or in this case, any kind of body fluid) cortisol levels vary according to the time, and whether you’ve just eaten or not. This property allows you to have a certain average variation of the hormone levels. If it fluctuates too little and the graph is ‘flat’, you have a problem. If it fluctuates too much and your graph looks like the 16th-century chapels that have the gothic style towers, you still have a problem. The key is to maintain a healthy and consistent level of cortisol.

Of course, cortisol levels aren’t really something that we can fix manually. To lower it, we need to get less stress, or at least less affected by it. As the famous author and psychologist Richard Carlson once said, “Stress is nothing but a sociably acceptable form of mental illness.” We don’t let ourselves get too worried over stress. Mainly because it is all around us, and is a constant in all of our lives. But just because we face it all the time doesn’t make it okay. Maybe, one could hope for a stress manager or a gauge that could help us know our stress levels based on the cortisol patterns. Who knows? Maybe sometime soon, a universal diagnosis or cure for stress could be developed. All for the greater good.


To eat, or not to eat?

This is an old essay that I wrote in the March of 2012. I have about 4~5 essays like these, and they will probably come up once in a while. Stay Tuned!

Various cultures have various eating styles, and that includes whether breakfast is treated as important or not. In some countries, such as Korea, breakfast is often considered the most important meal of the day. A famous saying (although it originates from Germany but it is still used widely) explains out view about breakfast; ‘One should eat their breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a peasant.’ However, this is not true for every country in the world. For example, in the US it is common to skip breakfast, or have a very brief one if at all. In Italy, the most common breakfast customs consists only of coffee and a croissant. Seeing that various cultures have different perceptions regarding breakfast, which is the wise way?

I do not live in the US, nor have I ever stayed there, but I am aware what myths circulate there through a bit of research. One popular belief is that breakfast is unhealthy – that it will make you fat, that it is not an important meal of the day, and, under the hypothesis that you are a student, that it will detract from your performance at school hearsay. There are a lot of myths about the unhelpful aspects of breakfast, most of which merely remain myths. Of course, in the American view of breakfast, this may just be true, for the typical breakfast menu consists of ‘snacks’ and foods that don’t satisfy all the nutritious requirements appropriately.

Scientifically, there might be a reason why a lot of people tend to skip breakfast and overlook its needs. During the Paleolithic era, when most of our basic instincts and reflex reactions were developed, food mainly consisted of hunted game and gathered crops – in other words, food wasn’t readily available all the time; only after the people had gone through all the trouble of finding, hunting, cooking, and serving it. Breakfast would have been the leftovers from the previous night’s meal, if they were lucky enough to have any – and that was rare, considering that game didn’t just come to the people’s doorsteps asking to be hunted.

So breakfast most likely would have been an invention of the Neolithic era, where animals were domesticated and crops were harvested, thus creating a storage of surplus food available when we needed an energy boost for the day’s work. Another point is that farming takes up much more energy than just hunting and gathering, therefore requiring breakfast to boost the energy level of the exhausted farmers before they would go out for another day of hard labor. Evidence that supports this theory includes the common breakfast menu – whether it is rice and soup in the Far East end of the world, or eggs and bacon like in the western – which mostly consists of domesticated food.

So by scientific evidence, the human instinct is not that accustomed to having a meal in the morning, and those who live in the cultures that value dinner greatly, the ones who eats breakfast every day, are probably just doing it out of habit, for we won’t be that hungry after that dinner and using almost no energy at all for 6~8 hours. Therefore the breakfast myths of the typical American person are probably true, more so when we consider the menu. Most of them are high-protein, low-carb foods that don’t contribute much to the energy. Not to even mention that the extra calories need oxygen to combust, thus leading blood flow to the stomach and away from the brain, creating drowsiness.

From the evidence so far, breakfast isn’t even remotely healthy and not necessary, the myths are probably true, and yet why is breakfast still so recommended everywhere? I think that the answer is that the whole eating regimen is in need of evaluation in such cases. We use a lot of energy these days. The brainwork probably couldn’t even compare to the hardships of farming for their own foods, but hard work of any kind, either mental or physical, is known to burn a lot of calories. We are perfectly okay to eat breakfast because we work as hard as the people did in the Neolithic era. Not to mention that this concerned only the western world, where the meals differ greatly in size. Most Asian countries have meals that don’t differ in size so much – breakfast is just as healthy as lunch and dinner when served properly, not like the snacks and desserts served in the west. A shocking fact reveals that whole wheat bread has about the same amount of glycemic index (GI) as the popular sweet skittles; meaning that it’s going to make you gain a lot of weight. Not healthy at all.

So what’s good about breakfast, then? (Under the condition that we eat three whole meals a day) Breakfast has a lot of benefits when eaten properly. According to studies, eating breakfast will help an adult woman’s diet become more successful, lowered the blood lead levels in children, decreases the chances of the person developing type 2 diabetes or heart failure, and is beneficial to teen mothers, both during and after pregnancy. It also may give you a relatively lengthy life span. Also, not eating breakfast can lead easily to higher blood cholesterol amounts, larger waist circumferences, and elevated insulin levels.

Still, breakfast isn’t all healthy. Remember, whole wheat bread has about the same GI as a bunch of candy! So it is also important that we choose healthy foods and live on a healthy diet. So rather than sugary cereal, bread, and domesticated meat like sausages or bacon, it is better to eat foods that are not too heavy in the stomach and have a low GI and high fiber and protein levels – oatmeal without sugar or egg whites are great examples. Such foods will make you healthy, smart and focused throughout the day.

Also, there are reasons that simple carbohydrates aren’t the best choice as a breakfast meal. Bread, cereal, pastry or doughnuts are such carbohydrates. It is because simple carbohydrates are quickly broken down into glucose molecules, which provide the general energy firsthand. Simple carbs are broken down more quickly, and a lot of glucose appears in a short time. And the thing about glucose molecules is that they run out fast – so if you eat simple carbs and sweet rolls for breakfast, you will most likely be hungry again by mid-morning. That is why high-protein foods are very much recommended as well. Proteins are eventually converted into carbohydrates when there is no space left in the liver for glycogen storage, but they are broken down more slowly and take a detour in the metabolic pathway. It keeps us burning for a long time, and it makes us last.

Overall, breakfast has many aspects. And if you’re one of those people who eat a giant dinner at 8:30, it’s probably better to skip breakfast than shoving unhealthy desserts into your stomach when you’re not even hungry. It will provide enough energy for the day and you’ll live. But to live a truly healthy diet? Eat a light dinner that is finished before 7:00 and eat breakfast daily as well. But always remember to keep the menu low-GI’ed and high on proteins so that it won’t do any wrongs to your health. You’ll live, your health will be maintained, and you’ll be happy throughout the day.

Thoughts? :)