I’m a fervent believer in the power of food to heal the body. With each client, my faith in food grows. Our food choices and the manner in which we eat our food impact every system of the body. Food, broken down in our digestive tract, absorbed into our blood stream and assimilated by our cells, provides the raw materials for our body and brain to function. It matters what we eat. Totally.
Isn’t eating well enough?
Yet you might be wondering, if my training is based in nutrition, why I spend so much time writing about managing and reducing stress. To explain, I need to explain a phenomenon known as the Pregnenolone Steal. Understanding the concept is more important than remembering the name.
Plain and simple, the concept is this: the body’s priority is survival. Piddly things like reproduction, immune health, and hormonal balance aren’t important if you need to escape from a fire or fend off a bear attack, right? Who needs to digest lunch when one’s life is on the line? The Pregnenolone Steal basically is the prioritization of the body’s hormone production to help you survive when your life is in danger.
A little background: hormones are chemical messengers produced in various endocrine (hormone producing) glands to influence our behavior, brain chemicals, emotions, the immune system and metabolism. Super duper important. Many hormones serve multiple functions: estrogen has at least 300! Endocrine glands are illustrated here:
Cortisol, our main stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands which sit on top of our kidneys. Cortisol enables the body to meet the demands of stress. Think of it as our survival hormone. In preparation for escape, cortisol spikes blood sugar, inhibits digestion, and, importantly, puts a halt to immune activities.
Look at the chart below. The “pre-hormone” pregnenolone is a holding tank of raw materials (provided by cholesterol) used to make our steroid hormones. See it up at the top? If we’re stressed, forget about DHEA, the happy, sparkly hormone of youth, or progesterone, the hormone of calm and balance. Forget about estrogen, which facilitates the transport of serotonin to your brain and keeps your skin and joints lubricated. The body instead directs pregnenolone to the manufacture of cortisol. Stress signals from our body cause pregenenolone to be stolen and shunted to where it’s needed most. Survival is the body’s priority.
This is a clearer visual of how the raw materials of pregnenolone are used to manufacture cortisol at the expense of DHEA, all the estrogens and testosterone.
The body cannot tell the difference between your chronic stress (a huge to-do list, the job you hate, your incessant worry) and the need to escape an attacker. Cortisol, in the short term, saves us. In the long term, not so much. Chronic stress means long term cortisol production. This creates wear and tear on the body and brain. The fall-out shows up as symptoms: waning libido, insatiable appetite, sugar cravings, brain fog, declining sense of confidence and well-being. The list gets much longer and serious as cortisol production continues. Hello Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia!
Where do we go from here? Reversing the Pregnenolone Steal.
This ultimately is good news: we have a lot of control in our health outcomes, and certainly the balancing of our hormones. The way we eat and what we eat has an impact on our cortisol levels. So do proper rest, exercise (not too much or too strenuous), breath work, meditation, acupuncture and pleasurable hobbies. If we want pregnenolone to be flowing in a balanced way, self-care has to become our ongoing work. Our lives are moving fast and are over full. Unlike other cultures, Americans don’t pride themselves on mid-day naps. Productivity drives us.
Small hinges move big doors.
Sometimes, the most subtle shifts in our behavior can bring about substantial reduction in our stress levels. We want to find those shifts. What is increasingly fascinating to me is how the perception of our circumstances drives our behavior. Our perceptions and thought habits can either alleviate or exacerbate stress. They can also enable us to act in ways to further alleviate stress or add to it. For example, if I write off my memory loss to the genes I inherited, I become helpless. If I believe there’s something I can do to influence the expression of my genes (i.e. epigenomics), then I put myself in the driver’s seat.
And perhaps there really is nothing one can do in this moment to change a circumstance that is painful? Then what is left is the attitude one chooses to have about the circumstance. Attitudes ultimately transform our experience of a circumstance.
An example: I have a close friend whose child is ill. At this point in my friend’s research and given the choices of her child, there’s not much that she can do to help her child heal. So in the midst of her child’s suffering and her own heartbreak, she has chosen to be as loving and constant a support as she can. This is where she finds her locus of control. She’s also aware that in order to show up as a loving support, she must take excellent care of herself and give herself regular breaks. Her own self-kindness and self-preservation become essential pieces of her child’s well-being. It doesn’t make it easy, but it brings relief and gives her a place to focus.
Finding your small hinge to move the big doors of stress.
I offer a few super simple but powerful ways to help you lower your stress levels and the damaging effects of chronic cortisol production.
- Extend compassion to yourself and others involved. Metta (loving-kindness) meditation brings ease and compassion to difficult situations. Just repeating the mantra “May I be healthy and strong; May I be happy; May I be free from suffering” is a way to support yourself during difficult times. Start by directing these wishes toward yourself, then direct the thoughts toward others who are suffering: the presidential candidate from an opposing political party, the woman who just honked at you, your kid’s unreasonable coach. Here’s a good article about loving kindness meditation here.
- Acknowledge that your teacher often comes in the form of difficulty. Look for what you are learning. For example, a critical boss or parent is teaching you to find your voice and stand up for yourself. Your demanding girlfriend is teaching you to set your own boundaries.
- In the midst of difficulty, watch your self-talk. Telling yourself “I’m so overwhelmed” or “This is so hard” may be absolutely honest, but don’t stop there. Tack on, “I am stronger than I know” or “I got this.” Carefully catch and replace defeatist self-talk. Feel your body relax in response to your own encouragement.
- Unplug and concentrate on one of your bodily senses. Even a 5 minute break to be in the present moment, rather than in your scary thoughts, can put your body into a restorative parasympathetic mode. You can focus on your breathing, or one of your senses. For example, focus on sense of touch: without moving, try to feel your feet, your individual toes, where your hair is touching your face or neck, etc). My personal favorite is to concentrate on my sense of hearing. Usually even in the silence, there are layers of sounds that rise to my attention when I’m quiet and focused. Focusing on your senses AND thinking stressful thoughts cannot happen at the same time.
- Read, watch or listen to something that elevates you. Immerse yourself in ideas that are bigger than your current troubles. Or read the words of courageous people. Have you seen the new movie I am Malala? Picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic? Things that inspire you help draw you out of a perspective that is limiting and helpless. Oprah’s got a new series starting Sunday night (10/18/16) called Belief.
- Talk to yourself. And when you do it, use your own first name and throw in an affirmation or two. This article from Psychology Today discusses a series of studies that demonstrate the impact of using one’s own name when talking to oneself. People who use their own names soothe their amygdalas and escape their own egocentric viewpoints. Interesting, huh? In addition, making positive statements ( i.e.,”I am a excellent candidate for this job”) broadens our perspective. The article refers to this as cognitive expansion. I want some of that!
All of us can do any of these things. Don’t wait until you’re stressed to do them. Build stress-reducing habits by practicing in times of ease. Play with one or two that resonate with you. And think of how powerfully you’re balancing your hormones as you do.
So yes, eat kale. Eat organic whole foods. This eliminates the stress of poor fuel.
We want to eliminate and reduce the stressors we can. Then our work is to subtly revise our responses to the stressors that remain. Small hinges move big doors.
Sending love and wishes for a stress-reduced weekend.