Stress is a part of life, and cortisol is one of the results of stress. You may have heard of cortisol, but not understand how too much of it can impact your health. So our concierge family doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter want to explain what it is, and offer ways to help control it.
Psychology Today calls cortisol “Public Enemy No. 1,” and lists just some of the ways elevated cortisol levels can be detrimental to your health: interfering with learning and memory; lowering immune function and bone density; increasing weight gain; elevating blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well as rates of heart disease; increasing risk for depression; and, lowering life expectancy overall.
Two studies published in the journal Science also identified elevated cortisol as a potential spark for mental illness and decreased resilience. Other studies have found that excess cortisol suppresses thyroid function, triggers digestive problems and headaches, and contributes to insomnia.
Cortisol is good for you
Secreted by the adrenal glands, the hormone cortisol is necessary to maintain life. Among other things, it regulates the metabolism of glucose, aids in the immune function, and helps repair tissue damage. When released into the body through the fight-or-flight syndrome, cortisol imparts the sudden burst of energy needed to flee the sabre-tooth tiger or dodge that oncoming truck.
In today’s world, however, we rarely face such life-or-death situations. Instead, we’re subjected to constant minor stresses that your body also perceives as threats: getting the kids to school on time, racing to meetings, dealing with rush-hour traffic, coping with a broken cellphone, and so on. The stress never seems to stop; thus, your cortisol levels never have a chance to drop back to normal, and this results in the chronic—and even deadly—illnesses listed above.
When cortisol is bad for you
Cortisol isn’t the only stress hormone, but it’s the primary one released when the body feels it’s in danger, whether from an angry boss, a sick child, or a looming deadline. Because cortisol releases extra glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream, increases the heart rate, stimulates inflammation, and raises your blood pressure, it can play havoc with every system in the body if it remains at elevated levels for extended periods of time.
Therefore, for the sake of your health, you need to learn coping mechanisms to return cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones to normal levels. So here are some effective strategies for stress management.
1. Eat well
Skip sweets, fats, starches, processed foods, alcohol, and caffeine whenever possible. Baby your body with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and nuts.
2. Get enough sleep
Cortisol rises with sleep deprivation. Aim for at least seven hours a night.
3. Practice deep breathing
If you take just five minutes a day to practice abdominal breathing, your stress levels will drop markedly almost at once. Lying on your back, place one hand on your chest, the other on your abdomen. Breathe slowly through your nose, trying not to let the hand on your chest move at all, while the hand on your belly rises and lowers with each breath. This exercise forces air deep into your lungs and helps release toxins from your body.
4. Exercise, preferably outdoors
Any type of exercise, from yoga or tai chi to swimming or tennis, is the perfect stress-reliever, because it gives an outlet to the cortisol flooding your body. Even a 10-minute walk will help.
5. Listen to music
Any type of music, as long as you enjoy it, will relieve stress. Research shows music produces opiates and endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones that will counteract cortisol. And singing along with others has been shown to reduce stress levels by up to 96 percent.
6. Engage in a hobby
Gardening, painting, scrapbooking, coloring books: Anything that you can focus on fully will take your mind off your stressors and allow your body to adjust cortisol levels to normal.
If these tips aren’t producing the results you seek, please talk to us. There are other strategies, supplements, and medications that can help you live a calmer, more stress-free life. Contact us to help you find the best solution.