Two lines to remember:
1) Stress depletes the body.
2) Calm restores the body.
What happens to your body if it is under chronic stress and possible high cortisol levels?
The facts: Too much cortisol can lead to the following health risks: suppress the immune system and delay wound healing, increase blood pressure and blood sugar (risk for diabetes), mood problems such as depression, decrease libido, insomnia, obesity and increased body fat (especially around the belly), infertility, bone loss in menopausal women.
The body is not meant to live under stress at all times and by the list above, you can see the negative consequences it can have. If you are like me, you brush right over those and think “Yeah, whatever…I can handle it.”
I have, however, found some fascinating information on how it impacts your overall state of mind and daily life that I would have never expected. It’s the concept of living in a state of hyper-vigilance.
To recap what happens under times of crisis (stress): The fight or flight reaction is triggered by an area of the brain that can be considered a “vigilance center” of sorts. The brain detects a threat and it poises the body for protection through a series of neurotransmitter and hormone reactions. We become a “hyper-attentive super-self”, all systems are on high alert, and we are in complete survival mode. But we are not actually fending off tigers and bears as our body is prepared to do so. We are fending off deadlines, traffic, children, husbands, etc.
Over time, Cortisol can act as a bully. It keeps coming at you as you rush around during your hectic day. Serotonin and Dopamine, which are feel-good chemicals, end up getting depleted. The thyroid can’t keep up, so metabolism is slowed. Progesterone receptors get blocked by Cortisol causing anxiety and disturbed sleep. In addition, it can throw off the estrogen/progesterone balance and possibly lead to estrogen dominance. I think we all know what that looks like, right? (Think PMS.)
Now our body and mind remain poised for protection and excessive threats. If there is no tiger or bear or real threat, because we are in such a state of hyper-awareness, guess what we do…We find it! Our body doesn’t know we are not in a perpetual crisis and it is now in our own head, resulting in worry, anger, and fear. To quote Dr. Gottfried, “Many of us are so accustomed to unremitting stress that we’ve actually rewired our brains to perceive danger when it is no longer a threat, or when it’s relatively minor.” Sound at all familiar? Because this sounds way too familiar to me.
Living like this can cause us to age quicker, die sooner, and lead an unhealthy and unhappy life. Hmm, I personally don’t want to voluntarily sign up for any of those and am ready to jump off that train. In my opinion, whether or not I actually have high Cortisol levels is of little relevance. The facts are: I am anxious and shake too often; I rarely fully relax: I worry about things I cannot control; My neck and jaw are usually tense; and I take medicine to try to get a full night’s sleep. The solutions I have read are healthy lifestyle changes. Pretty much the way I look at things, what do I have to lose???
What are some of the recommended lifestyle changes to thwart off stress and possible high Cortisol?
Meditation/Relaxation Techniques (such as deep breathing)/Yoga: More and more the mainstream healthcare community is seeing the benefits of such techniques to reduce stress-related conditions. The key to any of these practices is to hone in on the now, forget the past and don’t look to the future, and seek an inner calm. Your body will physically respond and reset those out-of-control neurotransmitters and hormones. Your mind will respond by finding peace and tranquility.
Massage: Massage impacts the central nervous system and endocrine system. What does this mean? It means it actually does reduce Cortisol levels and stimulates the neurotransmitters that make you just feel good (Serotonin, Dopamine, etc.). The most interesting point I learned is the effect of touching. Touching releases Oxytocin. Oxytocin, along with its other benefits such as connectedness and bonding, combats Cortisol and stress.
Change in bedtime habits: Cortisol levels rise and fall throughout the day. Levels lower at night and should be lowest between midnight and 4 am. Fortunately, through technology, we have been able to extend our days after sundown. Unfortunately, artificial light and these extended days can raise Cortisol at the time we should be settling down. Rule of thumb: “Unplug and unwind”. Shutting down electronics (computers, televisions, etc.) a few hours before bedtime will help lower Cortisol and ease us into sleep. Ideal bedtime? Before 10 pm!
Practice gratitude and forgiveness: An attitude of gratitude is an essential foundation for a happy and fulfilling life. Resentment and defeatism both impact Cortisol levels and stress. Studies have shown that practicing gratitude and other positive emotions lower the levels of Cortisol Remember, that no matter how bad things get, there is always something to be grateful for. Think about this: “What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?”
Doing anything that makes you feel loved: Loving someone actually releases Dopamine which in turn gives energy and optimism. Making love will help deliver oxygen to the brain as well as release those great endorphins, resulting in better sleep, better mood, and emotional confidence. Kissing, touching hugging, holding hands.. all will stimulate the release of Oxytocin, the “love” hormone that promotes bonding as well as inhibit Cortisol production.
Laughter: Who doesn’t love a good laugh? Come to find out it is also reduces the stress hormones and increases those feel good hormones. For a double dose of stress relieve try Laughter Yoga!
Diet and Supplement changes:
Limit alcohol and wean from caffeine: Both of these stimulate Cortisol production and disturb sleep.
Dark Chocolate: There is a study that shows 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate can reduce stress hormones. Dark chocolate has many health benefits so it is great a great option for those stress-induced cravings. Another 2-for-1…chocolate mediation!
Next: Seeking Calm in a High Stress World
Gottfried, MD, Sara (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York, NY: Scribner
Orloff, MD, Judith (2009), Emotional Freedom