You probably know that stress can make you tired, depressed, cause insomnia, and lead to weight gain. But did you know that it pulls calcium out of your bones? Not many people do. In fact, the stress-osteoporosis connection is hardly ever mentioned in books on stress, osteoporosis, hormones, or menopause!
If you've been exercising, eating a healthy bone-conserving diet, and taking your supplements faithfully, you may think you're doing enough to protect your bones. Not necessarily. Chronic stress can lead to brittle bones even after you've done everything else right.
Look at cortisol
Cortisol is one of many hormones secreted by your adrenal glands in response to any type of stress. Its levels are normally highest in the morning and lowest at night. High early morning cortisol wakes you up, and lower late evening cortisol lets you sleep well. If your cortisol is low in the morning, you'll find it's difficult to wake up and you are likely to feel tired throughout the day. If it remains high at night, you may be depressed and have difficulty sleeping.
All of us experience occasional bursts of cortisol in response to daily stresses — like when another car nearly misses hitting your car or you hear that a good friend is very sick. These reactions are normal and won’t cause thinning bones. Not if your cortisol levels re-adjust after each event.
But when your adrenal glands keep secreting this hormone inappropriately, they can leave you with high cortisol. Some medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, and other steroids, trigger your adrenal glands to keep secreting cortisol, as well. Over time, high cortisol can lead to exhausted adrenal glands and chronically low cortisol levels.
When you have high cortisol throughout the day, you feel exhausted all the time. In addition to what you feel, this excess cortisol pulls calcium out of your bones and interferes with its absorption, putting you at risk for losing bone density.
Measuring cortisol levels
Fortunately, you can now measure your cortisol and find out whether or not yours is chronically high with a simple saliva test your doctor can order. The test consists of saliva samples taken at four different times during the day and night. This is because cortisol fluctuates at specific times. The combined results show whether or not your hormone levels rise and fall when they should and indicate whether or not you are secreting too much. It also measures DHEA, a hormone that balances cortisol. One reason for high cortisol could be low DHEA, so it's important to get both hormones tested.
This Adrenal Function Test is available through a number of laboratories. I particularly like Aeron LifeCycles (800-631-7900) because they accept Medicare for full payment and will work with you if you can't find a qualified doctor to order this test. A number of insurance companies also pay for this test that costs $141.
In the past I wrote about a test, Pyrilinks-D, which measures the rate at which your bone breaks down and rebuilds itself. If you happen to have had this test, also available through Aeron, evaluating your cortisol levels may be your next step. If not, you may want the Pyrilinks-D test as well.
There are a number of natural solutions, should you find that your cortisol is too high. They include improving your diet, getting regular exercise, and taking one or more of a number of nutritional supplements.