"I was the woman sitting in the exam room, shivering in the little pathetic gown talking to my doctor about how, at 35 years of age, I couldn't lose weight, had no sex drive, and was miserable all the time," says Sarah Gottfried, MD. "He suggested an antidepressant."
Disappointed with what conventional medicine had to offer, Dr. Sara-a Harvard-trained OBGYN and New York Times best-selling author of The Hormone Cure-decided to look for solutions. "I had a hunch it was hormonal," she says. "After all, I'm a gynecologist. I think about hormones. And I know they drive a lot of things that happen in the body." Following a hunch, Dr. Sara measured her levels of cortisol-a substance secreted by the adrenal glands that's known as one of the major stress hormones. And she discovered that her cortisol levels were triple what they were supposed to be.
"In conventional medicine, I wasn't trained to look at cortisol," she says. "Yet it impacts everything-weight loss, mood, well-being, the whole nine yards."
Cortisol is a "fight or flight" hormone. It's supposed to prepare your body for action in a life and death emergency. If a bear is about to charge you, cortisol will raise your blood pressure and speed up your heart rate, pumping blood to the major muscle groups so you can either fight the bear off or run up the nearest tree. But the chronic stress of modern life is like a continual threat, and it overtaxes this system.
"There's a gap between what conventional medicine offers women of a certain age and what women want and need," says Dr. Sarah. "Women want to be understood. They want to be heard. And they want to look at biological reasons for why they feel like crap."
In Dr. Sara's case, the standard advice to lose weight by exercising more didn't work. "I was running 30 miles a week-running more wasn't the answer," she says. "It made me have even more of a muffin top." So she cut back on the running, started doing yoga, and began taking natural supplements, such as phosphatidylserine, that help lower cortisol. As she puts it, "I hit the pause button." And it worked.
Finding Hormone Balance
"For me-and for a lot of women-cortisol is like going to New York City," she says. "Whenever I go to New York, I have a great time-but I don't sleep enough, I drink too much, and I come home exhausted. What I learned as a woman of 35 is that I had to dump New York City and move to the country."
Dr. Sara calls cortisol, along with estrogen and thyroid hormone, the "Charlie's Angels" of hormones. "They all need to be in their right place," she says. "High cortisol disrupts your estrogen/progesterone balance, slows down your thyroid production, and reduces testosterone, which is a big deal with women because they have much less of it to begin with." She points out that women are particularly sensitive to too much cortisol, which can:
- Fry your memory.
- Burn through your "happy brain chemicals" (such as serotonin).
- Create sugar cravings.
- Make your body store more fat.
- Evaporate your sex drive.
"Cortisol is the elephant in the room that people aren't paying attention to," she says. "Once we get cortisol under control-and it doesn't take too long-then we start working with the sexier hormones, such as thyroid and testosterone. But it's really cortisol that's running the show. We have to unlock the other hormones by addressing cortisol first."
Asked to define what she does, Dr. Sarah doesn't hesitate. "I help women balance their hormones naturally," she says. "And I help them figure out novel ways to break up with New York City."
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, is a nationally known health, nutrition, and weight-loss expert. He is the author of The Great Cholesterol Myth and numerous other books. His website is jonnybowden.com.