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9 Proven Ways Cortisol Causes Heart Disease – And The Solutions!

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Did you know that there is strong evidence suggesting that your adrenal balance may be more important than any other factor for preventing heart disease? Let’s take a look into the reasons why, and what you can do about it, right now. 

Your Cortisol and Your Health

Make no mistake, cortisol has been linked to cardiovascular risk and death (1). It is so important to keep on top of our cortisol levels, specifically with regards to what our body does with cortisol once it has been produced.

I have talked about it before, but I am a big fan of renaming the condition of “Adrenal Fatigue” (2). I do not think it does the trick, and I also do not think it is very accurate to what is actually happening in your body – your adrenals aren’t fatigued, they are dysfunctional!

Bottom Line: Cortisol’s effects on cardiovascular risk has been well documented, and today I want to talk to you about some of those risk factors and what you can do to prevent them. We have done the research, we will talk about the risks, and then we will put together a plan for you to cut down on that risk right away.

The HPA Axis

One of the most important terms I want you to know about is known as the HPA axis. This is your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The data has shown that the HPA axis’ integrity is absolutely integral to our overall health.

Because of an acute stressor, our body can be moved in such a way to prevent us from running into more trouble. In most circumstances, this is an incredibly useful way in which our body self-regulates and prevents us from enduring further damage.

Problems begin, though, when major stressors reveal themselves early on in our lives. At that point, the HPA axis prepares our bodies for continual tragedy – like our bodies are constantly being prepared for the worst possible outcome.

Bottom Line: Rather than understanding this as “adrenal fatigue” I want to work towards an understanding of “adrenal dysfunction” in our lives. The reality of this axis dysfunction is that it can affect so many different areas of our overall health, and cardiovascular health is just one of them.

Cortisol and Cardiovascular Health

The role of the adrenal glands, and cortisol, has been very well-researched as it concerns cardiovascular health. It has been studied in three unique ways, which are:

  1. In studies involving Cushing’s disease
  2. In studies involving short-term glucocorticoid excess
  3. In studies involving non-Cushing’s disease cortisol excess

The research is real, and so are the outcomes. When we talk about the role of cortisol and cardiovascular health, we need to know that this is definitely not “bro science” – the kind that relies on lower levels of science and testing (like animals and test tube studies).

Here are the 9 proven ways that cortisol can influence heart disease, and the things you can do to improve your heart health, today:

1. Blood Pressure

It seems that your blood pressure can be strongly regulated by your glucocorticoid (3), which is your cortisol metabolism. That is probably the link between salt and blood pressure that we begin to see. If you look at salt, overall, what you will notice is that there is a trend in groups where salt influences blood pressure – but in many instances, it does not tie in. For this reason, we can start to see glucocorticoids, like cortisol, as being apart of the connection.

About one-third of people have been shown to have high blood pressure based entirely on their cortisol excess (4) – which can be best understood as an exaggerated level of cortisol in the body. Even in the short term, this can radically influence blood pressure. So, watching your cortisol becomes so crucial, while also keeping an eye on your salt intake and how that affects your cortisol levels.

Bottom Line: Excess cortisol has been shown to increase our blood pressure, which increases our risk for cardiovascular disease.

2. Truncal Obesity

What is truncal obesity? Simply put, it is your waist circumference. I have seen some papers that have suggested that one of the stronger predictors of heart disease might just involve a simple tape measure.

Key Insight: The further men get above 36 inches, around their belly buttons, the risk for heart disease grows (5). For women, it begins around 34 or 32 inches.

What we know is that your glucocorticoid levels, like your cortisol metabolism and your adrenal function, plays a huge role in predicting truncal obesity. There is a strong association there, so we cannot simply ignore it.

3. Hyperglycemia

Is your blood sugar high or erratic? It has been shown that this phenomenon of disrupted cortisol rhythm is one of the strongest predictors of blood sugar running too high – which is ultimately associated with early diabetes risk.

Bottom Line: Patients who had impaired glucose tolerance show glucocorticoid resistance and excess glucocorticoids, despite having otherwise normal levels (6).

4. Dyslipidemia

This is where we need to consider your lipids, such as your cholesterol, your triglycerides and your HDL cholesterol. This is another instance where we need to think about our circadian cycle, and how it plays such a huge role in our overall health – otherwise known as the “adrenal stress-type” phenomena.

In normal populations, this cortisol that we are getting rid of is one of the strongest predictors in pushing down our good cholesterol and making our triglycerides run higher (7).

5. Hyperhomocysteinemia

Homocysteine is something, genetically, that some make way too much of because they are unable to methylate properly. Amongst those who are susceptible, it turns out that the cortisol metabolism also affects homocysteine generation (8).

What does it mean? Well, homocysteine has been shown to be an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease on its own, especially for those with Cushing’s disease (9).

6. Carotid Intima Media Thickness

This is otherwise known as the thickness of the protective layer of the carotid arteries. That cortisol curve that we mentioned before, remember that? Lots of data has shown that this plays a large role in this incredibly important part of your body (10).

This is especially worse when the pituitary response is also blunted (11). It gets even worse when you have Cushing’s disease, where you have even more extreme levels of cortisol in your system (12).

7. Heart Rate Variability

This is fascinating stuff right here. If your heart is beating 60 times per minute, let’s say, then it’s not just one beat per second. A healthy heart rate will show variability, this is just how it works.

Let’s pull back a bit, and think about our nervous system. So we have this “fight or flight” response built into our system, but we also have the “feed and breed” part of our nervous system – one is on edge, and one is relaxed, to put it simply. One is like a gas pedal on your heart rate, and the other is like the brakes.

When these two systems are in good balance, they are constantly doing a gentle ebb and flow between the two. What this means is that your heart rate of 60 beats per minute might be: 1.1 seconds, followed by 0.9 seconds, and so forth. This is just a gentle ebb and flow, and is how your heart works.

If these two nervous systems are not well-balanced, though, they prevent your body from going into the parasynthetic repair mode (13). This means that if there is an exaggerated stress response, which leads to a state of impaired heart rate variability.

Key Insight: Your cortisol cycle is one of the strongest risks towards changing your heart rate variability. We see this most often in shift workers, who have extremely disturbed heart rate variability from a lack of a consistent cycle (14).

Ultimately, your heart rate variability – if it is poor – is a big predictor of cardiovascular mortality.

8. Coronary Artery CT Scoring

We see much greater amounts of plaque during coronary artery CTs, when someone has been exposed to more cortisol (15). In cortisol disease states, this can be a big problem leading to fatal cardiovascular episodes.

9. Sudden Cardiac Death

There are so many stories of athletes, or others, who pass away so suddenly due to sudden cardiac death. It would seem that this cortisol cycle, apart from a cortisol disease, plays a large role in that type of event (16).

Bottom Line: These are 9 proven ways that cortisol can cause heart disease, whether it has to do with disease or with your cycle. These are all very dangerous, and they are all very real, so what can you do about it? Luckily, we have solutions to discuss.

How do you evaluate HPA axis dysfunction?

There are a couple things you can do. The first thing you can do is consider taking the adrenal quiz (17). It can give you a really good starting point to figuring out more about your adrenal function and your adrenal health.

There are also salivary cortisol tests which are able to show whether or not you are dealing with adrenal dysregulation. Finally, we can see from hair cortisol tests the total amount of cortisol excretion going on in your body (18).

Key Insight: We do not see these sort of results from blood tests. We also do not always see this from cortisol urine tests (19). They are mostly showing adrenal cortisol production, when we are also just as concerned with how your body is getting rid of cortisol.

Action Steps You Can Take

The first thing you might want to consider is light therapy. This is where you “treat” your body to a certain level of light, so that you can help manage your body’s natural circadian rhythm. So much of what we do is dependant on when we wake up, and light therapy can actually help our body’s start their process at the right time.

Key Insight: For light therapy, consider half an hour of 10,000 lux within the first hour of waking. This will give you that important “morning sun” that your body needs to kick itself into high gear. Afterward, you can give your body a period of “dim light” during the last hour of waking.

Light therapy is a good place to start, but there are also other simple changes you can make in your day to day life. It starts with your diet, and it revolves around what I have termed the Adrenal Reset Diet.

Personally, I wrote the Adrenal Reset Diet around a clinical trial. We showed that simple, good food, which was properly (and strategically) timed, could radically improve this cortisol cycle. The idea therein is that carbohydrates basically “push down” cortisol. If you use it strategically, you can get your cortisol to where you want it: high in the morning, and lower in the evening.

Some good carbs at breakfast, some at lunch, and a healthy dose in the evening is really all that it takes. Ultimately, it helps to engender a good cortisol curve within your body. In a nutshell, that’s the Adrenal Reset Diet (20).

It’s a simple shift, but it can:

  • Improve your cortisol
  • Cut down your cardiovascular risk
  • Help you sleep better
  • Leave you feeling more energized
  • Provide you with better weight loss results

Bottom Line: At the end of the day, it is all about cutting down our risk while feeling good about our bodies. We have seen our cortisol can be connected to cardiovascular risk, which can sometimes be fatal, but we do have a solution. All you have to do is make some simple changes, and you can be on your way to a better life.

Your Adrenals and Your Health

I know I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating again – take the Adrenal Quiz (21) today, and learn more about these important glands. Trust me when I say that it can go so far in working to improve your life, with simple choices and better results. If you feel like you are possibly at risk, you need to do yourself a favor and learn more about resetting your adrenals and feeling better today.

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Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.

Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.