Cortisol: The Master Stress Hormone

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In a post last week I covered how men and women handle stress differently. Stress could easily be argued as having the most impact on a person’s health and well being, yet being the most dismissed or ignored.

The first thing that you need to understand about stress is that it is not just something that happens when you are under a deadline or committed to too many activities in one day. Stress is what you feel when life’s demands exceeds your ability to meet those demands – seriously, check the dictionary.

Again, Stress is what you feel when life’s demands exceeds your ability to meet those demands.

Yes this includes deadlines at work and an overly committed calendar, but it also includes sitting in traffic, being rushed in the morning because you hit snooze 5 times, eating something your body doesn’t handle well, getting less than 7-9 hours of sleep each night, financial struggle, worrisome struggle. Really the list could go on and on. And let’s be honest, we live in a world of go, go, go and bigger is better.

“So great, I’m under stress Ashley, not anything I didn’t know before. And plus, I can handle it”, says just about everyone. And I’m sure that you can. For now. But to fully understand what stress, or better yet constant stress, does to your body, you need to understand one little (or rather big) hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol, known as the Master Stress Hormone, is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It will be your body’s focal point during times of situational stress, but can fluctuate from high to low points if a person is under chronic stress.

Ideally cortisol should follow a normal pattern, where it rises and sets with the sun. It should have its highest peak in the day 30 minutes after waking, its largest decline from morning to lunch time, a gradual decline into the evening, and its lowest point at night to promote falling asleep.

Normal Cortisol Lelvel Rythm

But when our bodies are under a constant state of stress – which I’m not pointing fingers, the majority of us are – we tend to become either chronically high in cortisol, or chronically low.

High cortisol will cause a person to be tired but wired. You are exhausted, yet when your head hits the pillow at night you can’t shut off and fall asleep. High cortisol is one of the number one offenders of increased body fat, specifically that lovely area we like to refer to as our ‘love handles’ or ‘spare tire’. Love, I’m not too sure about, but spare, well that makes more sense. It is your body’s way of storing fuel for its fight or flight, chase down the bear for dinner mode that we have taught it to constantly be in.

On the other hand, low cortisol, which usually follows a bout of chronically high cortisol, so sorry, there is no escaping the love handles or spare tire, will cause a person to feel dog-tire all day, every day. You are too tired to do anything but the bare minimum to get through the day so you can be right back in that bed as fast as possible.

When cortisol becomes imbalanced a host of things can happen. Yes the weight or body fat gain, but also an increase in the aging process, a decreased sex drive, uncontrolled hunger, fluctuating blood sugar levels, poor sleeping patterns, poor focus and/or attention span, loss of interest in hobbies, increased or decreased blood pressure, forgetfulness, irritability, anxiety, etc….really, the list is endless.

But just to put the cherry on the top, cortisol also holds the job of regulating other important hormones; specifically estrogen, thyroid, and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone – sorry for the mouthful). So really, if and when cortisol is imbalanced, it is likely that these hormones are imbalanced as well. Not always, but likely. And if you can balance your cortisol levels, these other soldiers are more likely to fall into their respectful places.

Like usual, I am just chipping away at a very large iceberg known as hormones. It is my hope that together, we can start to learn the various hormones of our body, the very important roles they play, and how we can impact them through our daily lifestyle choices.

a.wise approach: A car never runs well on an empty tank; either does your body.

Ashley

Do You Know Your Values?

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*The following post is meant for educational purposes only and is not meant to advise, diagnose, or treat any medical condition. This information is not meant to replace any medical advice or relationship with a licensed medical professional.*

Do you know your values? I’m not talking about your deeply-rooted moral values, although you should probably have a good grasp on what those are as well. But what I’m talking about is your lipid panel values. You know, your cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose… Never heard of them? Certainly don’t know what they are? If that is the case, well, frankly I’m not surprised.

As a 27 year old female who exercises and appears to be healthy from the outside, I have been told by more than one doctor that we do not need to test these values because I am young. We can wait until I am in my 30’s. My question to them, and better yet to you, is why wouldn’t we test these numbers before I’m 30? Do the past 27 years of my nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress habits not matter for the next 50+ years of my life? Isn’t one of the most important reasons to test these values is so that I can be preventative with my health instead of reactive? Well if that isn’t a reason for them, it certainly is a good enough reason for me.

A routine lipid pane, routine meaning that you should have one done at least once per year, should include the values for: total cholesterol (TC), LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, TC/HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels.

Once per year you say, easy, I can get that done – great, I’m glad to hear that won’t be too much trouble for you. But I’m going to push you one step further and encourage you to know what you’re looking at when you get your results mailed to you, because 99% of the time all you will get is a list of numbers and a “your values look good” statement from the clinic. Helpful right? Or not.

Now it’s not to say that having a firm statement from the clinic letting you know you are in good health isn’t reassuring, and really, why would you need to know anything further? Isn’t it their job to know if something is off with your values, not yours? I would beg to differ. And I mean strongly beg to differ.

When you choose not to know what is going on inside of your body you are choosing to give 100% of the control of the most precious asset in your life, your health, over to someone else. But my health isn’t my most precious asset you are thinking. Your kid’s, your significant other, your “insert whatever you want here” is your most precious asset in life. Ok, I understand that. But let me ask you this, how are you going to care for your most precious asset in life if you are too ill to provide them with 100% percent of yourself?

Now I could spend a whole blog series on the topic of lipid panels and the numerous changes they have undergone. Instead I am going to provide a brief description of the values you will see on the most basic lipid panel. What they are, what they mean to your health, and where western medicine states they should lie as of today. Whether or not I agree with where the values “should” lie is a topic for another day and many other blog posts. But in the meantime, I would highly encourage you to go pick up the book Cholesterol Clarity: What the HDL is Wrong with My Numbers by Jimmy Moore.

 

Total Cholesterol (TC)

What it is: TC is made up of your LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and particles of your triglycerides. This number is not made up of simply adding those three values together. There is an equation that is used to determine the number and therefore, cannot be a straight forward value.

 What it means: Honestly, not much of anything. Without knowing what the other values are that make up that number, a person’s TC cannot tell them much about the status of their health. However, if your TC value is significantly low, this could be a sign of something deeper going on in your body. Contrary to what you hear, lower is not always better for your TC value.

Where it “should” lie: Western medicine will state TC should be <200 mg/dL. Again, read the book.

 

LDL Cholesterol

                What it is: Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. LDL is responsible for carrying cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins from the liver to the cells. Because of this job, LDL cholesterol has previously gotten the wrap of being the “bad” cholesterol. We now know this is no longer the case and since, LDL cholesterol is referred to as just that, LDL cholesterol.

What it means: Again, nothing. LDL cholesterol is a calculated value and without looking at the particles that make up the LDL (again, another post for another time and read the book), there is little that this value can tell you about your health. However, if your LDL value is significantly low, this could be a sign of something deeper going on in your body.

Where it “should” lie: <100 mg/dL

 

HDL Cholesterol

                What it is: High-density lipoprotein cholesterol. HDL is responsible for carrying cholesterol from the blood to the liver to be excreted. It is our body’s clean-up mechanism.

What it means: A whole lot. If a person’s HDL level is low it could mean a number of things from their body not absorbing nutrients, their body has a good amount of inflammation going on, to they are a smoker and their body’s ability to produce HDL is shunted. The list could go on and on. But, the same could be said if their HDL is elevated. Another thing that is usually not ever said – that an HDL level is abnormally high. HDL is a very important factor for knowing where your health lies and for determining if your heart health is at risk.

Where it “should” lie: For men >40 mg/dL, for women >50 mg/dL, and for everyone >60mg/dL is optimal.

TC/HDL Ratio

                What it is: A division of your total cholesterol by your HDL cholesterol.

What it means: This value indicates how much of your TC is coming from HDL cholesterol. It is a great indication of where your heart health lies.

Where it “should” lie: Low risk <4.4:1; optimal <3.1:1

 

Triglycerides

                What it is: Triglycerides are a form of energy, known as free fatty acids, used by the body. When you eat your body either has to use the energy right away for the activity you are doing, store the energy in your muscles as glycogen (another energy source), or store it in the body as fat to be used later.

What it means: Our body only has the ability to store so much energy in our muscles (another post for another time) before it has to be converted and stored in the body as fat (the free fatty acids). When we are consuming more energy than we need, or not the type of energy that we need (i.e. eating more sugary carbohydrates than protein and fat), our body will turn that energy into triglycerides to be stored in our blood for later use. When you start to see an increase in triglycerides, it is a strong indication that your body isn’t using the energy you are consuming as efficiently as before, or, the type of energy you have been consuming is more carbohydrate-based.

Where it “should” lie: Low risk <150 mg/dL; optimal <100 mg/dL *this is a very important value that is covered in great extent in Cholesterol Clarity*

 

Glucose

                What it is: Blood glucose is the amount of sugar in your blood at that specific time.

What it means: Blood glucose levels give insight to how your body is processing sugar and managing its insulin levels. Abnormal levels, whether high or low, are an indication of how your body is using insulin and our first line of defense in determining if someone is diabetic or not.

Where it “should” lie: <100 mg/dL

 

This is just skimming the surface of what these values are and what they mean to your health. If you haven’t gotten the hint, I would highly encourage you to take the time to have your values checked on a yearly basis (at minimum) and read Cholesterol Clarity so that you are informed and ready to make a decision about your health if the time comes.

For full disclosure, here is copy of my most recent labs taken this month.

lipids

a.wise approach: Educate yourself now, so you’re prepared to make a decision then.

Ashley

Room

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Room

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Depicted from the view of a 5 year old boy who has never known a space larger than eleven-by-eleven feet, the story of Jack and his mother experiencing the outside world for the first time, in one manner or another, is both heart-aching and exciting. A truly riveting description of an otherwise horrible experience, the reader is satisfied yet left wanting more.

Written For:

The unfortunate, however fortunate, real-life experiences of abducted-and-rescued individuals has sparked the public’s interest in these unfathomable situations. Room provides a glimpse into what these situation may be like, providing the public an insight without having to think about the real-life scenario.

Learning Curve:

Jack and Ma teach the reader that an imagination is all you truly need to learn and entertain yourself in life

a.wise approach: Do not loose your ability to imagine, you’ll be lost in life without it. 

Ashley 

2014 Health Goal: 1/2 Marathon PR

As proclaimed in my post, A new Approach for me – New Year Goals, one of my health goals for this year is to achieve a PR for my ½ marathon time. Whether a PR is an actual “health goal”, versus a “personal goal”, is just details to me. I run to keep both mentally and physically – although more mentally because I can get pretty crabby without it – healthy and that is why I filed it into the “health goal” category. You can take it how you please.

Now, when I say a PR for my ½ marathon time, I would love to PR my overall best time, which is 1:56:and some change for a ½ (and 1:24:and some change for a 10 mile – let’s be honest, I would love to PR that as well), but what I really mean is that I want to PR for the Mankato ½ marathon in October.

The Mankato Race Series has been a tradition with myself, Dustin (the boyfriend), and my family since the inaugural race in 2010 where my sister-in-law and I ran the full marathon (both our one and only), and Dustin and my brother ran the 10k. The following two years I ran the 10k with Dustin (he wasn’t convinced at that time that going more than 6.2 miles is actually thrilling), and last year a large group of us (Dustin, sister, sister-in-law, and 5+ friends) all ran the ½ marathon.

Although not my first ½, it was my first year running the Mankato ½, along with everyone else in our group as well. Coming back from an injury that needed physical therapy and no-running time,  and at the end of a 3-race-in-30-days streak, I was pumped and ready to go.

In true MN fashion, the weather was awful. It was quite cold (you can’t use the words “unseasonably” and “cold” in the same sentence if you are from or live in MN), windy and rainy. I layered up and told myself I would ditch my jacket at the 6-7 mile mark when I was to see my friends who were watching the race.

By the time I was approaching the 6-7 mile mark I was feeling pretty good and well on pace to PR. Even though the weather hadn’t gotten any better, I had it in my mind that I was going to be giving my friends my jacket and took the time to fumble with taking my watch off, it was placed over the sleeve of my jacket, and even more time trying to fumble it back on. My pace slowed and the air appeared to have actually gotten colder (duh Ashley – you just let all your body heat out) and everything went downhill from there.

To make a boringly detailed story shorter, I had to make a pit stop in the woods (and by woods I mean the biggest tree I could find in Sibley Park- yes it was clear as day to everyone running by), and then continued to shuffle my way to the finish line cursing both myself for my stupidity of bothering to remove my jacket, and the route for having a stupid number of hills and turns at the end of a race (I couldn’t tell you if I hated them more then or at the end of the marathon). I managed to run myself in under 2 hours as I shouted to Dustin (he rocked it in 1:37:and some change) and our friends about my detour to the tree – all with a plastered smile for the camera.

Kato race 2013Dustin and I Kato Race

Needless to say, I have a bone to pick with this ½ and I’m not only coming to course PR, but to overall PR. And so it begins, the training that ramps up to race training.

Mind you it is 1⁰ in MN today and the wind sounds like you are smack dab in the middle of the tornado from the Wizard of Oz…I guess it’s the weights and treadmills until future notice…

MN hill training

a.wise approach: Don’t just pick a goal to have a goal; have a reason to ignite the fire that will make it burn.

Ashley

P.S.

The Mankato Race Series early bird special is going on right now and races are 40% off for the rest of the month! Hope to see you there!

 

The Big Leap

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A guide book to recognizing the many ways we have been limiting ourselves and the simple steps we can take to stop being our biggest roadblock to living a happy and successful life.

Written For…

Anyone who is wanting more out of life; whether it be professionally, personally, financially, spiritually, or all of the above.

Learning Curve…

Although the keys and steps provided by Hendricks are simple, they take mindful awareness and dedicated practice to accomplish. This is a life long journey that cannot and will not be achieved by just reading the book, you must be willing to look hard and deep within yourself and put in the time and effort to make the changes that can alter your life.

 

a.wise approach ~ you know it is more than a good read when you rent it from the library and immediately want to purchase it for life-long reference.

Ashley 

Sorry, Not Sorry About It

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Sorry, not sorry about it…

I hate to admit this but…

I have a guilty pleasure for…

No matter how you choose to word it, we all have done it. Apologized for something that we like before anyone has time to ridicule it, assuming that there is something socially wrong with what we enjoy, what entertains us, or what brings us happiness. Now I’m not talking about things that are just downright immoral, like kicking puppies or rooting against the Twins (kidding – only on the Twins part), but the little things that make us enjoy life just a little bit more.

I mean, isn’t that beauty of humanity? That we are all different. That we all have a different list of things that bring happiness to our life and no two lists are the same.

I dare you, in fact double-dog-you, to not apologize for the things that bring you joy, and then take it one step further, and find out the things that bring joy to the people around you.

A few of the things that bring me happiness that I am not afraid to admit:

ABC Family. I watch about every regular TV show on that channel. Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, Switched at Birth, Ravenswood, Baby Daddy, Melissa and Joey…and if they add a new show, you can bet your bottoms-dollar that I will give it an episode or two. Now I might not continue to watch every show, sorry Bunheads, but I will at least give them a go. Why you may ask? Because I am a tween at heart. From my days of ‘N Sync and kissing posters of Justin Timberlake, which I have never fully admitted even though my brother and sister could clearly see my Lip Smacker’s  on the paper, to reading Gossip Girl books well into my 20’s. These shows bring out every ounce of my inner tween and I love every minute of it.

Snooki. Yep, I said it, I like Snooki and she brings me entertainment.  I might prefer her on Twitter or Instagram compared to Snooki and JWOWW (I still DVR it), and I’ve never read her books, yet the thought has crossed my mind, she is a source of entertainment for me and I don’t care what you think about it.

Staying with the theme of TV and celebrities, you are much more likely to find me watching E! News than the daily or local news. It’s not that I don’t care about what is going on in the world; I frankly find it more depressing than uplifting. Although, this is not something I am ashamed of, I am trying to become more interested in what is going on around me and what will affect my future and the future of my family.

Lastly, I still have a blanky. I sleep with it every night, make it with my bed every morning, and prefer to bring it with me on overnight trips. Yes I know I am closer to 30 than 20, and no I do not care. I will have that blanky until my resting day.

a.wise approach ~ you are the maker of your happiness, do not apologize for it.

Ashley 

Why Men and Women Respond Differently to Stress

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Men vs. Women brain

It’s not unknown that men and women handle stress differently. If I want to play into what society portrays (I openly apologize to my sister-in-law for gender-stereotyping right now), men like to go out to the garage to work on something, make themselves feel like they are solving all the world’s problems. While women like to get together with their girlfriends for some chit-chatter over margaritas and chips and salsa. Seem familiar? Or so far from the truth that you are swearing to never read this blog again because I stereotyped men and women? Either way, it is no secret that men and women do not respond to stress the same way. If we did, then no one would ever be made to sleep on the couch and flower companies would be out of business.

But like many other differences between genders, we have been told that men and women are just different in this way. No explanation, we just are. OK, ok, maybe you grew up hearing all men are stubborn and all women go through periods (no-pun intended) of craziness, but that’s not really an explanation either.

The truth is, that men and women DO respond differently to stress, and it all comes down to how our bodies are programmed to react.

When a man is under stress his body is inclined to have a hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis response, also known as the resistance stage, putting the body on auto-pilot to run; leading to high blood pressure or a heart attack. While a woman’s body is more inclined to have a hormonal (not surprising right?) response, triggering her emotions; leading to depression or anxiety. Whether, situational (acute), or persistent (chronic), both types of reactions can have either a positive or negative effect on a person’s health; it is knowing how to manage stressful situations, and knowing when you have entered a state of chronic stress, that allows a person to reap the benefits, instead of submitting to the short-comings.

So how do we manage these reactions to have more positive than negative outcomes? I only have one tip for you today, and know that this is just the tip of the iceberg: Get yourself into bed to allow enough time for 7-9 hours of sleep.

As previously stated, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a lot more to cover in regards to how our body responds to stress and there are a lot more steps you can take to optimize the stress you do experience.

For more information, stay tuned for my next post on stress: The Basics of Cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

a.wise approach ~ start paying attention to how many times in a day you feel under pressure, knowing this is the first step to reaping the benefits stress.

Ashley 

One Percent: My Journey Overcoming Heart Disease

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Written after a two year battle from seemingly good health to sick and nearly dead, Tom Martin chronicles his experience with mainstream health care in a well written, dairy-entry style page-turner that captures the reader and has them rooting for Tom every step of the way. It is his undying quest for answers, never-ending hope, and loving support and resources of his friends and family that give Tom the tools to make it into the One Percent class.

Written For…

Anyone who has ever had to deal with unanswered questions from the people who were supposed to know everything. In addition, anyone who is interested in what it takes to be an advocate of your own health and grasp control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation.

Learning Curve…

Don’t trust everything that doctors and medical professionals have to say. Take the time to educate yourself on the situation, on your body, and use it to become your own health advocate. You are the only person who is going to have the loudest voice for yourself.

a.wise approach ~ you are the only one who can speak si yourself, so speak loud and speak often.

Ashley 

 

Women Basics: The 3 Phases of the Menstrual Cycle

I’ve had the great pleasure of having my period since the age of 11, and like many women, I never knew much about the nitty-gritty process of the menstrual cycle. I knew that for about 4-7 days out of the month I was going to bleed, become extra sensitive, and want certain foods more than I wanted the new Michael Kors watch I have been eyeing… and then repeat it all again next month. That is, until I read the book The Hormone Cure by Dr. Sara Gottfried, and wanted to know everything I possibly could about a woman’s body and the rollercoaster of hormones we go through.

There is much to be said about the menstrual cycle, and in reality, it is different for every woman. However, it is important for every woman to at least understand the basics of her cycle. This includes knowing the 3 different phases of the cycle (yes, some science will be included here), and tracking her cycle.

WARNING: Below you will find scientific words that help explain a woman’s period…it is only 3 sentences long so I hope you can stay awake to read it 😉

There are 3 general phases of the menstrual cycle known as the menstrual (early follicular), follicular, and luteal phase. These phases are regulated by blood levels of estrogen and progesterone hormones. More commonly the phases are associated with days in a woman’s cycle, usually lasting 28 days, although they can vary greatly from woman to woman. Menstrual phase, indicated as day 1 of the cycle and lasting up to day 5, is determined by both estrogen and progesterone being low, follicular phase, days 6-20, when estrogen is increased and progesterone is low, and the luteal phase, days 21-28, when both estrogen and progesterone are high.

It is not only important to know how long your cycles last, but how long you are in each of the phases as well. Believe it or not, these fluctuating hormone levels affect practically every avenue of a woman’s life.

Tracking your menstrual cycle can be as simple as keeping a small notepad to write down the day you start and the day you end your cycle, as well as the length of the cycle. Or you can take it all the way to tracking body temperature, weight, mood, sleep, workouts, cravings, etc.

I started with keeping a “note” on my iPhone but was annoyed when I deleted an email account and that note, along with many others, went away as well. Since I have started using the WomanLog app to track my cycle and have thoroughly enjoyed it (and have been comforted knowing its contents are backed up to my email address).

You can decide the detail and method of your tracking, just start tracking. Period.

a.wise approach ~ know your body, it’s the only place you will live for the rest of your life.

Ashley