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Cortisol: Law Enforcement Obesity, Chronic Stress, Death

When Joe Public thinks about police officers what image do you think comes to mind?  The tough-talking, physically fit cop walking the beat; every ready to chase down a perp at the drop of a hat; jumping fences with the ease of a kangaroo? Or an overweight man whose belly slows him down from even issuing a loitering ticket, let alone pursuing a suspect?  The essential physical skills for a patrol law enforcement officer include running, climbing, jumping, lifting/carrying, pushing, dragging, and using force.  Where do you stand related to the ability to do all of the above? 

LEOs have the second highest obesity risk of all occupations. Motor vehicle operators have the highest risk.  The grim reality is that 40.5% of American police officers are obese. This level is noticeably higher than the reported national averages, which suggest that 35.5 percent of adult men and 35.8 percent of adult women are obese.  Obesity in police officers not only creates significant problems for an individual officer’s health, it also causes issues in law enforcement as a whole. 

You might not be obese, but someone on your squad is.  Contrary to the widely conceived image of the lazy cop hanging out at the donut shop with his cronies; obesity is now considered to be a multi-factorial occupational risk of being a law enforcement officer.  The previous premise that obesity is solely based on poor lifestyle choices (diet and physical activity) of officers is not only ignorant, it is simply false. 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, specifically a glucocorticoid, which is released in response to stress.  It is produced in your adrenal glands. The adrenal glands of a healthy person produce about 20mg of cortisol each day which may increase to 200mg a day during periods of stress.  Cortisol, AKA “the stress hormone" works with the hormone epinephrine to fuel the fight-or-flight instinct. During times of stress, these two hormones work to provide as many resources as possible for survival. Cortisol has four primary functions:  to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system, regulate blood pressure, and aid the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrate. 

Cortisol is an essential hormone; it allows our internal systems to maintain stability and stay in balance during acute forms of stress (fear, physical trauma, and physical exertion).  Once the stressor is gone and the incident has been resolved, these hormones return to normal levels.  However, people in a prolonged or constant state of hyper-vigilance produce excess quantities of cortisol and may consistently sustain elevated levels of cortisol.   This explains why LEOs are more susceptible to the effects of elevated blood cortisol levels.

Additionally, the normal pattern of cortisol secretion (highest levels in the early morning and lowest at night) can be altered especially related to shift work.  These disruptions of cortisol secretion not only promote weight gain, it can also effect where the weight is put on. Elevated cortisol tends to result in fat deposition in the abdominal area. This type of abdominal fat is commonly referred to as "toxic fat" as it is strongly correlated with an increased risk of cardiovascular; disease including heart attacks and strokes.  Additionally, increased levels of cortisol are associated with depression, diabetes, impaired immune function, impaired memory function, and decreased testosterone.

High levels of cortisol results in increased food cravings, particularly for sugary and carbohydrate-laden treats, even if an individual has already eaten enough.  To add to this cycle, studies have demonstrated that overweight and obese men secrete higher levels of hormone cortisol in their bodies after eating, which could make them more susceptible to developing chronic diseases

In a recently published American Journal of Human Biology article scientists studied the cortisol levels in policemen.  They concluded that the variability of cortisol levels, both spikes and drops, in law enforcement officers, has a strong and complex relationship with an officer’s risk of obesity.  

Additional Risk Factors for Police Obesity

Can you count how many times you have wolfed down your food to complete a meal without being interrupted by a call for service?  If you answered yes, you are a rookie. This type of binge eating does not allow you to feel full before your plate is clean, increasing your risk of overeating. If you work the second or third watch, what options do you really have on where to purchase food when you feel hungry? Let's face it, Circle K primarily offer a feast of sugar and fat.

If you are a stress eater, food can be as comforting for you, as a beer is for a drinker. Most overeaters eat to fill a void or deal with stress: from a dispatch call, a demanding supervisor, or personal problems.  Know your risks. 

10 Tips to Reduce Cortisol Levels

The antidote for increased stress is quite: relaxation. Include the following ten stress management techniques to cut your cortisol levels up to 50%.

  1. Exercise:  regular exercise helps regulate hormone levels
  2. Recreation:  having fun is crucial; sports, gardening, hobbies, concert, whatever
  3. Minimize stress:  whenever possible, avoid stress-inducing situations
  4. Meditation:  decreases both cortisol and blood pressure.
  5. Listen to music:  it provides a calming effect on the brain, especially before you face a known stressor
  6. Yoga and Tai Chi:  aerobic and anaerobic exercise have been shown to be effective interventions in reducing stress
  7. Get more sleep:  the difference between 8 hours and 6 hours of sleep is about a 50% increase in cortisone in your blood –  take naps if you can’t get a full night’s sleep
  8. Laugh often:  hang with a humorous pal, watch a funny DVD, read some jokes
  9. Get a massage, soak in a tub, or pamper yourself some other way on a regular basis. 
  10. Connect with something bigger than yourself:  nature, spirituality, volunteer

Ten Diet Changes That Can Decrease Cortisol Levels

  1. Cut back or eliminate all drinks with large amounts of caffeine in them, they can cause a spike in cortisol levels.
  2. Reduce the amount of processed foods in your diet, especially simple carbohydrates and sugar.  Real no-no’s include: white bread, pasta (whole wheat is okay), rice, candy, cookies, cakes, etc.
  3. Drink more water; even minor dehydration can raise cortisol levels
  4. Decrease alcohol consumption—it also raises cortisol levels
  5. Eat more protein; whey protein, eggs and lean animal meats
  6. Eat 5-6 smaller meals
  7. Eat more fatty fish; salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sea bass.  Or take fish oil supplements, 2,000 mg of fish oil per day lowers your cortisol levels.
  8. Additionally, eat more spinach, beans, citrus fruits, and dark chocolate (finally some good news!)
  9. Drink black tea to recover from stressful events more rapidly
  10. Talk to your doctor about taking anti-stress supplements; vitamins, minerals and herbs.  Rhodiola is a proven cortisol lowering herb (a form of ginseng)

Things Only Get Worse Over Time

Cortisol is the one hormone that actually increases as we get older.  Additionally, the cortisol levels of a young person under stress may rise rapidly, they return to normal within a few hours as the stress is relieved.  Whereas, the cortisol levels of an older person exposed to the same stressor, remain elevated for days (not hours), once the threat is over.  A 65 year old has far higher levels of cortisol circulating throughout their system than does a 25 year old.

In the field of anti-aging, scientists have labeled cortisol as the “death hormone”. Large amounts of cortisol are toxic when they circulate in our system for prolonged periods of time.  Specifically, elevated levels of cortisol cause:

  • Brain cell death – excess levels of cortisol will kill neurons and brain cells
  • Decrease the size of vital organs
  • Accelerates cardiovascular disease
  • Decrease the size of our muscle mass
  • Destruction of the immune system
  • Thinning of the skin

Conclusion:  If you are reading, evaluate your risks, and then take action.  Elevated cortisol has and will continue to affect your health.  And if all else fails remember:  Stay Calm and Carry On.