Cortisol: The Stress Hormone


Stress. Everyone knows this one little word. Some of us all too well.

When you are stressed, levels of the stress hormone cortisol spike, and this can wreak havoc throughout the body.

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands just above the kidneys. It plays many roles in different body processes, including controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, helping reduce inflammation, assisting with memory formulation, and controlling blood pressure.

It’s indisputably one important little hormone!

But cortisol is really best known for its involvement in the “fight or flight” response to stressors. Here’s how it works:

Individual is faced with a stressor, then …
Adrenals secrete cortisol, then …
Cortisol prepares body for fighting or fleeing (heart rate increases, blood pumps harder and faster, glucose sent to large muscles for energy, digestion shuts down), then …
Individual addresses and resolves the stressful situation, and finally …
Hormone levels return to normal, bringing you to the state of “feed and breed; rest and digest”

This system absolutely worked back when we were cave people and a saber-toothed tiger was chasing us. (Ack! TIGER!!! RUN!!!) Cortisol levels would cascade, energy was rerouted to big muscles, and you were ready to run. You’d (hopefully) escape the tiger, get to safety, calm down, and go back to normal.

Problem is, in our plugged-in, fast-paced society, many of us are ever-stressed and our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly. With many of our modern stressors, there is no clear resolution of the stress, like there is when you escape a tiger. It’s an outdated physiological system in many ways, but for better or for worse, it’s what we’ve got to work with.

So what exactly does it mean if you have elevated levels of cortisol? How can that be harmful?

Well, get yourself comfy and scroll through the following loooong list. High levels of cortisol contribute to increased risk of the following:

* Weight gain and obesity
* Immune system suppression
* Chronic inflammation
* Susceptibility to colds, flu and illness
* Cancer
* Food allergies
* Gastrointestinal issues, including ulcers
* Autoimmune disease
* Cardiovascular disease (think stressed-out Type A person at greater risk for heart attack)
* Fertility problems
* Insomnia
* Chronic fatigue syndrome
* Thyroid disorders
* Dementia
* Depression

WOW. That list is pretty bleak. But don’t get too down about it, because there’s actually a lot you can do.

The best approach to keeping cortisol levels low is stress management and an optimized diet.

Here are some tips for managing your stress: 

* Get better sleep. Try a dark room, go to bed at the same time each night, and avoid digital devices an hour or two before bedtime (blue light wakes up your brain)
* Do some cardiovascular exercise
* Address any psychological or emotional issues (we can work on this in a coaching sessions)
* Deep, rhythmic, belly breathing. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Focus on the sound of the breath, or count your breaths. (we can work on this in a yoga session)
* Meditation (we can work on this in a private yoga session too!)
* Mental scan of body, imagining each set of muscles in your body relaxing
* Positive visualization, seeing your future goals in your minds eye like they are already happening now
* Mindful walking, quieting your thoughts and focusing on what your senses perceive, including the rhythm of your steps
* Chanting a mantra out loud, or speaking or writing a positive affirmation, over and over again

OK! Feel better now? Lots of great things you can do with appropriate action to manage that stress, right? Right! Phew!

Now how about your diet? Is it as optimal as it can be?

To address reducing your cortisol levels with an anti-inflammatory diet, you can:

* Lower your intake of refined starches and sugars, and processed foods overall.
* Winter squash and sweet potatoes can help fulfill the craving for starchy “comfort” foods
* Eat more whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, as opposed to things made/baked with milled grains like processed flour.
* Eat more plants, especially a full rainbow of colors for broadest nutrient spectrum. Also more beans as plant-based protein.
* Eat plenty of good fats like avocados, walnuts, and olive oil, and eliminate trans fats.
* Reduce or eliminate caffeine
* Drink plenty of water, and start your day with a glass of warm water with lemon for improved digestion and alkalizing your system

A good rule of thumb with food, in general, is that the closer it is to how it came from the earth in the first place, the better it is for you.

So, dear readers, as you can see, all hope is not lost!

Stress may always be there, and with it, an increase in cortisol and all its subsequent negative effects. However, we have many tools to help ourselves remain as balanced and healthy as we can. Now you have the knowledge and the power, so go ahead and use as many of these cortisol-reducing tools as you can in your everyday life!

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