Friday, February 19, 2010

Chronic Stress and Health Interview

Here is a rough transcript from the audio of a recent edition of the Wisdom of Balance Podcast, where I was talking about chronic stress, hormone balance, and overall health with Bryan Young and Elias Pate (producers of Killer At Large)...

Bryan and Elias are both film producers who I’ve worked with in the past on several projects, including the feature-length and award-winning documentary, Killer At Large. Killer at Large is a film about the American obesity epidemic and why it’s our country’s greatest public health threat – and you can view a trailer of the film at

I asked Bryan and Elias to join me today because since our work together on Killer At Large, we realized that chronic stress and hormone imbalances are at the heart of a lot more than just the obesity epidemic.

For close to a decade, researchers around the world, including some of my own work, have been making some startling links between stress and metabolism. So, we know that people with more stress also have hormone imbalances – and those imbalances can lead to more fat – but also more diabetes, more heart disease, more cancer, more depression and many other chronic health conditions.

Which we’ll talk about when we come back – you’re listening to the Wisdom of Balance Podcast at

What exactly is cortisol, and how can it make you fat?

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. Any time that you are exposed to stress, your body releases cortisol – and that is perfectly normal and healthy because small amounts of cortisol are needed for regulation of blood pressure, heart rate and carbohydrate metabolism.

The problem is, that when we are exposed to too much cortisol for too long, we can develop a wide range of health problems. For example, elevated cortisol levels can make you fat because cortisol increases appetite (especially for carbohydrates), slow metabolism and encourages your body to store fat.

Can cortisol affect my health in other ways?

Yes, elevated cortisol levels have also been linked to diabetes, muscle loss, osteoporosis, memory problems, low libido and certain cancers.

How can I control my body’s cortisol level?

Several ways. Stress management, regular exercise, balanced nutrition and certain dietary supplements. Some of my books – like The Cortisol Connection and some others give practical recommendations in each area – and websites like provide articles and audio files like this one to help educate people about what they can do and how to put those recommendations into practice.

How important is cortisol control, compared with controlling cholesterol or blood sugar?

The cortisol/health link is a lot newer than the links between cholesterol and heart disease or between blood sugar and diabetes, but the scientific and medical evidence (thousands of published papers and growing every day) will certainly place stress and elevated cortisol levels in the same “danger” category along side cholesterol, smoking, and sedentary lifestyle as a primary risk factor for the development of chronic disease.

What inspired you to start writing and speaking about stress and metabolism?

Everybody knows that stress is “bad” for us – but scientific and medical research is just beginning to show us why stress is bad. Researchers have been studying stress physiology for more than 30 years, but since the mid-1990’s there has been a tremendous surge in our knowledge about why stress is bad for long-term health (cortisol) and what we can do to combat those effects.

Some of my own research in the mid-90’s suggested that the primary stress hormone, cortisol, may accelerate bone loss, weaken bones and increase the risk of osteoporosis. Soon after receiving my Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Rutgers, I began looking for ways that nutrition could help control the stress response and reduce our exposure to excessive cortisol levels. During those years, the relationship between stress, cortisol, and a host of chronic diseases has been growing stronger – and the scientific and medical evidence is finally strong enough for us to make some practical recommendations for people to use in promoting their long-term health.

Boil it down for me – how does stress make me fat – or how does stress impact my overall health?

Stress increases cortisol exposure, which in most people leads to increased appetite and abdominal weight gain.

Increased cortisol reduces testosterone levels in men and women, leading to a loss of sex drive and muscle mass and an increase in fatigue and body fat.

Some people with high stress do not have high levels of cortisol in their blood, but they can still gain weight because of high cortisol levels within their fat cells. Fat cells contain an enzyme, called HSD, that increases cortisol levels within the cell as a way to encourage more fat storage (even when cortisol levels in the blood remain normal).

How can people tell if they have too much cortisol – or if they’re likely to be out of biochemical balance?

They can ask themselves 3 simple questions:

Got stress? Of course you do! That’s strike one.

How about sleep—do you get less than eight solid hours of restful sleep every night? Yes? Strike two.

What about your diet—are you among the millions of people who are actively dieting or concerned about what you eat? Yes? Strike three.

Inadequate diet / refined foods / fruits/veggies / pure H2O / air pollution, etc…

So, if “imbalance” is the “problem” – what is the “solution”?

Like many complex problems, the solution is actually not all that complicated—and it looks like this:

The “eat less and exercise more” approach to weight loss has failed.

Stress makes you fat.

Maintain hormonal balance between cortisol (both outside and inside cells) and testosterone. THAT’s what people need to understand – that chronic stress leads to these specific hormone or metabolic imbalances – and it’s those imbalances that lead to depression and fatigue and obesity and health problems – so, if we can get our bodies back into balance, we can actually thrive in the face of stress and be full of energy and good mood and long term health…


Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D.

Nutritional Biochemist and Author

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-Killer at Large - an award-winning documentary exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic (

-The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkens) -

-Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection - The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House) -

-Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living (Chronicle Publishers - Currant Books)

-The Cortisol Connection - Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House) -

-The Cortisol Connection Diet - The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House) -

-A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements - an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press) -

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