By Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, LDN, FACSM, FACN Author of The Secret of Vigor: How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Metabolic Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Chances are, if you’re like most other people living in any industrialized country anywhere in the world, your daily routine is hectic and stressful, you suffer from constant fatigue, you rarely sleep well, you continue to gain weight, and you’re at least occasionally moody. In fact, you may be experiencing what we often refer to in metabolism research as “burnout” or exhaustion.
Vigor vs. Exhaustion
Vigor and exhaustion are polar opposites. Psychologists define ‘vigor’ as a three-tiered sustained mood state characterized by physical energy, emotional energy and mental focus. People with high levels of vigor are the ones who always feel like getting things done. They feel energetic. They are in a good mood. Their minds are sharp.
You might try to temporarily treat your exhaustion with coffee or an energy drink, but those are inadequate and temporary solutions that are likely to leave you feeling even more exhausted when their stimulant effects wear off. Instead, I generally advise people to beat exhaustion and restore their vigor naturally by restoring what I call “Biochemical Balance,” the balance between hormones like cortisol and testosterone that become disrupted by chronic stress.
Connecting the Dots: Stress, Cortisol and Testosterone
One of the major problems with today’s late-to-bed, early-to-rise” lifestyle is that your cortisol levels never have enough time to fully dissipate overnight as they should. As a result, your body never has a chance to fully recover and repair itself from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. That overexposure to cortisol throws a monkey wrench into your ability to maintain biochemical balance. And when your biochemical balance is out of whack, it puts your overall metabolism into a downward spiral, accelerating the breakdown of tissues and sending your energy, mood and mental focus into a tailspin, leaving you exhausted with low vigor.
Testosterone and DHEA are hormones produced, along with cortisol, by the adrenal glands. They suppress inflammatory cytokines, reduce oxidative damage and improve insulin sensitivity, but their levels are suppressed when cortisol production is elevated, so you lose much of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits during periods of chronic stress.
Research studies show us that a wide range of different stressors can elevate cortisol and suppress testosterone levels. Even factors such as dieting to lose weight and not getting 8 hours of nightly sleep can put excessive “stress” on the body. Preventive medicine specialists from the University of California at San Francisco have shown that high levels (or long periods) of stress lead to higher cortisol, lower testosterone, and increased rates of exhaustion in younger and older men and women across all age groups.
Women Need Testosterone? Really?
Often referred to as the “hormone of desire,” testosterone is involved in maintaining sex drive, muscle mass, mood and energy levels in BOTH men and women. After the age of 30 (just like in men), testosterone levels start to drop in women. Although a woman has only about one-tenth the testosterone of a man, her levels drop by about half by the age of 45 (compared to the amount she produced at age 20) – and they drop even faster when she’s exposed to chronic stress.
Subsequently, there is a very predictable drop in sex drive, loss of muscle mass, reduction in metabolic rate, and decrease in energy levels and mood – followed by a predictable increase in body weight and feelings of exhaustion (low vigor).
Biochemical Balance for Energy and Fat Loss
In both men and women, a balance between cortisol and testosterone is needed to build muscle and other proteins, such as immune system components, and control many aspects of physiology, including metabolism of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from food. Some of the most common effects of imbalanced cortisol/testosterone ratio in both men and women include:
- Exhaustion (reduced physical/mental energy = low vigor)
- Low sex drive
- Decreased muscle mass
- Reduced calorie/fat-burning
- Increased abdominal fat
Since women have less testosterone than men to begin with, any stressed-induced drop in testosterone would be expected to affect women even more than most men. For women who want to stay lean, strong, healthy, energetic and active, maintaining a youthful testosterone level is just as important as it is for men.
Like other hormones, including cortisol and testosterone, we know quite clearly that maintaining normal levels, not too high and not too low, is the approach associated with the most dramatic long-term health benefits. Luckily, we know that we can maintain this hormone balance with natural approaches including exercise, diet, stress management, and even dietary supplements.
Exercise: Virtually all forms of exercise help to reduce cortisol and elevate testosterone levels in both men and women. Pick a type of exercise that you enjoy and do it on as many days of the week as possible.
Diet: Eating a balanced diet with plenty of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and unrefined/whole carbohydrates will provide the essential nutrients required by the body to mount an effective stress response.
Stress Management: Stress researchers from around the world have shown that how we perceive and cope with a given stressor can determine our hormonal response to that stressor.
Dietary Supplements: In addition to a balanced diet, certain dietary supplements are effective in naturally maintaining normal levels and balance of cortisol and testosterone. For example, on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show, I spoke with Dr. Oz about Eurycoma longifolia, or Tongkat ali, a Malaysian root often called Malaysian ginseng for its energy-boosting effects. Tongkat ali is a safe and effective natural way to bring testosterone levels back to within normal ranges; I consider it as probably the best first-line therapy for anybody suffering from chronic stress and exhaustion. In traditional Malaysian medicine, eurycoma is used as an anti-aging remedy because of its positive effects on energy levels and mental outlook, which are most likely the result of improved biochemical balance.
In a perfect world, we would have low stress and high energy levels because we could easily maintain our balanced hormone levels of youth. Alas, the very process of living and aging in our stressful world leads us toward elevated cortisol and suppressed testosterone – which combine to promote exhaustion, depression, and weight gain – unless we take proactive steps to maintain our biochemical balance.