If you are reading this article, then it is a guarantee that you are quite aware of the impact that cortisol has on your life. You are at a computer, which means you probably have Internet access, a job to pay for it, a decent lifestyle, and more than likely, a lot of obligations, deadlines to meet, and a host of things that are out of your control. You know what “stressed out” feels like. Some of us even take a type of perverse pride in our stress, believing that it makes us more important and that it is evidence of our productivity. Some of us may even brag about how we put in “60+ hours per week” at our job, “Can get by on less than six hours of sleep per night,” or are involved in the three extra curricular activities that each of our children have.” While, no doubt, some of this frenetic level of activity may be necessary, there is a cost that we all need to be aware of and need to decide if we are willing to pay it.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by our adrenal glands. Like a lot of bodily functions that work beneath our conscious level of awareness, it only gets noticed when it is out of balance. Cortisol is necessary for proper functioning and survival:
⦁ Cortisol helps balance the effect of insulin, keeping blood sugar at the correct levels
⦁ Cortisol helps the body regulate and function during times of stress
⦁ Cortisol assists in the regulation of blood pressure
⦁ Cortisol helps in the regulation of the immune system
From an evolutionary standpoint, cortisol exists in order to wake you up in the morning, adapt more effectively to life-threatening danger, and cope with sudden emergencies. A sudden spike in cortisol gives the human body potentially superhuman capabilities. We are literally faster and stronger under the influence of cortisol. Unfortunately, 21st century life does not give us many opportunities to appropriately exercise this kind of power surge. In fact, excess levels of cortisol in your body can have a deleterious negative effect, called Cushing’s Syndrome, which often leads to:
⦁ Mood swings, depression, and irritability
⦁ Digestive problems
⦁ Heart disease and high blood pressure
⦁ Sleep disturbance
⦁ Weight gain
⦁ Premature aging
If this were a commercial, this would be the point where the voiceover says, “If you suffer from any of these side effects, contact your physician.” Not bad advice by any means, but before you go through the stress of making the appointment, three hours in a waiting room, a hefty co-pay, and two or three prescription medications, there are a lot of things you can do on your own to bring your cortisol levels under control. Here’s a few to get you started:
⦁ Get your diet under control. Cut back on all beverages and foods that have caffeine in them. This includes not only coffee, but soft drinks, energy drinks, tea, and chocolate. Caffeine causes spiking of cortisol levels. While you do not need to cut out caffeine entirely, it’s a good idea to use caffeine judiciously.
⦁ Reduce processed foods, simple sugars, and carbohydrates. These cause a spike in cortisol levels, increase blood sugar, and cause you to feel anxious. Anxious feelings and thoughts promote increase cortisol to prepare you for the perceived disaster. Try to avoid white bread, pasta, white rice, and pastry products. When you do indulge, lean towards whole wheat.
⦁ Keep yourself hydrated by drinking lots of pure water. Dehydration causes spikes in cortisol, as dehydration leads to stress and stress leads to higher cortisol levels. No need for all those funky, expensive flavored waters unless you prefer them. Regular tap water works fine. Just try to consume 1 ounce of water for every 2 pounds of your body weight.
⦁ Use fish oil regularly. Fish oil has been linked to moderate levels of cortisol as well as with a host of other beneficial results. If you prefer real food to supplements, lean towards salmon, mackerel, sea bass, and sardines. Fish oil has been shown to aid with brain functioning and reduced levels of inflammation. It is one of the cheapest and least invasive things you can do for good health.
⦁ Learned to meditate in some fashion. Just learning to sit quietly, focusing on your breath, for 10 to 20 minutes per day can bring down stress and cortisol levels dramatically. There doesn’t have to be anything mystical, magical, or religious about it. Just find the time and a place to sit quietly each day. If you find it difficult, try doing it outside as often as possible. Meditation is an acquired taste, but well worth the time and effort.
⦁ Exercise, exercise, exercise! Yeah, you knew what was going to get around this eventually. Exercise does not have to be intense or painful, but it must be absorbing and done consistently. Some exercises are much better than others for lowering cortisol levels. Yoga, tai chi, and Pilates, for example, are better for lowering stress than intense cardio or weight training. While cardio and resistance training are necessary for a complete program, a simple stretching routine and a little bit of walking on your off days will do the trick in lowering your cortisol and stress levels. Don’t under estimate little things like parking your car a quarter of a mile from your destination, a brief 10 minute walk at lunch, or a few minutes of yard work.
⦁ Laugh, smile, and hug when appropriate. All three of these activities drastically reduce cortisol. They are your physiology’s “proof” that everything is okay, if not now, at least soon. Find ways to do all three.
Cortisol is a powerful, internally produced, necessary drug that we need for survival. Learn to control your cortisol levels or your levels will control you. It is estimated that as much as 70% of primary care physician visits in the United States are due to stress related illnesses. Before you sit in that waiting room, try some of the solutions suggested here for at least 30 days and see how you feel. Be consistent and you will find that you feel the difference. While you may not become the Dalai Lama, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better.
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