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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Daniela

A single meal containing animal products may double the amount of cortisol—a steroid hormone—in the blood, as opposed to cortisol levels actually going down after a vegan meal. High levels of cortisol are associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high levels of triglycerides. High-protein, high-cortisol diets have also been shown to lower testosterone up to 75% in body builders.

Cortisol and Cushings

Cushing’s syndrome is a condition associated with too much cortisol. Symptoms can include polyphagia, weight gain, marked visceral obesity and profound intraabdominal deposition of fat. Chronically high cortisol levels may contribute to obesity, as cortisol has been implicated in motivating food intake even in the absence of caloric need.

Cortisol and Pregnancy

In a study of high-protein diet effects on pregnant women, the high-protein group suffered an excess of early premature births and associated neonatal deaths, together with significant growth retardation of the babies that survived. The effects also proliferated later in life, with children at higher risk of becoming overweight and developing high blood pressure. Causes may include obesity-causing chemicals in meats, the cancer-inducing growth hormone IGF-1 or the steroid stress hormone cortisol. Exposing the fetus to high cortisol levels can also elevate glucosteroid secretion, leading to various features of metabolic syndrome throughout the baby’s life, even up to thirty years later.

Exposure to stressful situations yielded more intense emotional responses in children whose mothers consumed the highest amounts of animal protein during pregnancy. Recent studies suggest that long term consequences of adverse conditions during fetal development may reach more than one generation, even with subsequent optimal development conditions. This finding may be shedding some light in the epidemics of diabetes, obesity and heart disease affecting Western culture.

Cortisol and DHEA

The body has natural ways to balance cortisol levels. DHEA is a cortisol antagonist and is generally associated with longevity, but its levels drop with age. DHEA supplements are available, but natural ways to boost DHEA are available and preferred. With an egg-free vegetarian diet, blood levels of DHEA were shown to rise about 20% over an ovo-vegetarian diet. In fact, an egg-free vegetarian diet achieved a similar effect to calorie restriction diets, with multiple health benefits.

Cortisol and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferers have inappropriately low levels of glucocortisols, which are circulating hormones that suppress inflammation. Researchers found that increased intake of potassium stimulates the production of glucocortisols, thus better controlling inflammation. The results of the study showed good correlation between potassium intake and improvement in RA with a lower disease activity and pain intensity. Also, as potassium-rich foods boost natural anti-inflammatory process in the body, the effect also applies to psoriasis. An emerging “Cortisol-Potassium” theory appears to account for a number of beneficial effects of vegetarian diets.

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