Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Conquering Cortisol

In my latest blog post, I talked about the harmful effects that chronic stress can have on the body. Cortisol is known to be one of the hormones that can build up in the body, causing long term damage to vital functions.

I have been researching natural ways to reduce the negative effects that cortisol can have on my body, knowing that I am chronically stressed, between work, being a single parent and my type-A personality, among other things, I live in a chronic state of stress. After researching the impact that state can have and knowing that it is likely one of the contributing factors to several of my health problems including migraines, IBS, weight gain, insomnia and high blood pressure, and potentially, my depression, I have decided it is time to crack the code on my cortisol production.

First of all, reducing stress is the number one way to reduce cortisol production. As I said in my last post, cortisol is an important hormone for many of our body's processes. However, since it is a stress hormone whose primary function in the stress response is to reduce the function of several processes that are not required for the immediate threat requiring the fight or flight response. (Remember this can be real or perceived)

Now, I have known for some time, cortisol is part of the stress response, but until I researched it, I did not really realize what its primary function was, and how a chronic state of stress can cause long term issues. I mean, theoretically, I knew that cortisol build-up could cause problems, I guess I didn't realize how many problems, or more importantly, how many of my own health issues could be caused by or at a minimum made worse by my chronic state of stress.

The good news is my research has uncovered a ton of ways to reduce cortisol production and the negative effects that a chronic state of stress can have on my body.  Some of the ideas are as easily implemented, others, not so much.

Eliminate Caffeine
As you know, if you have been reading my blog, I am a Mt Dew Addict. However, studies show that eliminating caffeine is the quickest way to reduce cortisol production. Just 200 mg of caffeine (1 cup of coffee) increases cortisol by 30% in one hour and it can remain elevated for up to 18 hours after. How long do you think cortisol can stay elevated when you drink a 6 pack of Mt Dew every day... Ouch! Not only does caffeine raise cortisol levels, but it can also significantly reduce night-time secretion of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that tends to reduce cortisol production at night. Remember that cortisol is supposed to be very low at night when melatonin is high.  Melatonin production is increased by a photochemical mediated pathway that converts serotonin to melatonin in the pineal gland after 4 hours of complete darkness. 

Sleep Deeper and Longer
This brings me to the next way to reduce cortisol levels as not getting enough sleep, particularly quality sleep will have tremendous impact on stress levels and overall health. One study showed that one night of missed or interrupted sleep was enough to give a healthy person the blood sugar levels of a diabetic or pre-diabetic. Other studies have shown that getting less than 5 hours of sleep a night can impact driving ability and cognitive function the next day.  I know I am a bear when I don’t get enough sleep, and everyday tasks become more challenging for me. This puts additional stress on the body and subsequently increases cortisol levels, which ironically cause more sleep issues. It is a nasty little cycle. Sleep and the stress response is a topic I will look at more closely as I try to start healing my own body. Go to bed each night at the same time, wake up at the same time, and get out in the sunshine. This creates a good circadian rhythm, which optimizes your hormone balance naturally.

Exercise Regularly
Building muscle mass increases the output of serotonin and dopamine, those feel-good neurotransmitters that help to regulate the stress response.  It is important to note that too much exercise can have the exact opposite effect and put your body into the stress cycle and increase cortisol as a result. Adaptive exercises like yoga, pilates, Qi-Gong that use the body weight for strength and flexibility are better for your relaxation response and should be incorporated into any exercise regimen.
Also of note, is that your body needs enough time to recover after exercise. Not ensuring enough recovery time between workouts will, you guessed it, activate your stress response and increase cortisol production. You will also see the most benefit from your exercise when you give your body enough time to heal, muscle gains and cardiovascular strength actually happen during the recovery cycle, not the workout, yet many of us spend more time working out then recovering, minimalizing the benefits of the very exercise we intend to make us healthier.

Keep your blood sugar stable And Eliminate Gluten
Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets. Dietary starches and sugars increase the blood sugar level, which in turn decreases gluconeogenesis and reduces cortisol production. By maintaining stable blood sugar and insulin levels, your body will secrete less cortisol when you’re stressed. I will post separately about the dietary changes we can make to emphasize this response. Gluten found in many grains and foods processed with these grains can lead to inflammation within the digestive tract, which leads to the release of cortisol. Read more about kicking the sugar addiction here and here and dietary changes to help keep your blood sugar stable and deal with stress here

We already talked about sleep and exercise recovery time, which both lead to relaxation. Obviously, since cortisol is part of the body’s natural stress response, relaxation is an important part in regulating our body’s ecosystem, if you will. In fact, relaxation is so important to this natural process, I will cover many different ways to relax in a separate post.

Try a little aromatherapy or massage

Certain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals are key to the body’s natural processes. Excess production of cortisol dampens the absorption of some of these key nutrients. While dietary changes are to be considered your first mechanism for increasing these key nutrients, sometimes, you just need to supplement your diet to get enough. Certain diets can also be hard on the body’s echo system, if you aren’t getting enough of these dietary nutrients, say in a low carb or a vegetarian diet, it may be important to supplement. Look for another post soon on specific supplements recommended for improving the relaxation response and maintaining healthy levels rather than excess cortisol.
Read more about supplements for stress

Herbal Adaptogens
In addition to dietary supplements, herbal adaptogens are known herbs which help you adapt to stress and help eliminate the long term negative effects it can have on your body. Many cultures have used herbal remedies for centuries. Read more about herbal supplements for stress here

Stay Hydrated
Dehydration puts the body into a stressed state and raises cortisol levels. Keeping yourself                          hydrated with plenty of water will reduce dehydration-induced stress. “Studies have shown that being just half a liter dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels,” says Amanda Carlson, RD, director of performance nutrition at Athletes’ Performance, a trainer of world-class athletes. Stress can cause dehydration, and dehydration can cause stress. It’s a vicious cycle. You can break it by building more water consumption into your day. “Stress can result in many of the same responses as dehydration -- increased heart rate, nausea, fatigue, headache -- so if you can remain hydrated you can reduce the magnitude of the physiological responses we have to stress,” says Trent Nessler, PT, DPT, MPT, managing director of Baptist Sports Medicine in Nashville.
Studies have shown that practicing grounding is one of the most effective ways to restore natural hormonal rhythms during sleep, resynchronizing cortisol to its innate diurnal patterns. Earthing, or grounding, is the practice of reconnecting with the earth’s healing energy by allowing bare skin to come into direct contact with the earth's surface. This can be done by walking barefoot outside on the dirt or sand, swimming in lakes or in the ocean, or by the use of specifically designed earthing which bring earth’s energy into the home using a grounded electrical system or grounding rod.

Sit Up Straight and Breathe
If grounding sounds a little far-fetched for you, something as simple as sitting up straight and taking deep breaths can have a profound impact on our mood, our stress and of course our stress response. Due to our desk-sitting habits and stress-driven culture, many of us have actually altered the musculature of our natural posture and have become rapid, shallow, chest breathers. This breath habit compromises oxygen flow, weakens the abdominals, causes adrenal strain, compresses organs, creates lower back pain, and stimulates adrenaline-cortisol release. Learning how to breathe properly can neutralize this effect and turn off the stress cycle. A Harvard study led by Cuddy et al  found out that if you switch from low-power (arms crossed, hunched, closed up, nervous etc.) posture, into a high-power (opened up, tall, relaxed, confident etc.) posture, your hormones will act accordingly to your new posture. Two minutes spent in an “upright, confident posture” decreased cortisol by 25%. Taking a deep breath has been also been shown to lower cortisol levels. Deep breathing can also cause a temporary drop in blood pressure, another effect of our stress-driven culture.

Kick the Alcohol
While many of us reach to alcohol for relaxation, it actually raises cortisol levels.

Dim The Lights
I have already discussed the importance melatonin production plays in our sleep cycle and in turn, our stress response. Since melatonin is secreted naturally in the body, when it is exposed to the dark, keeping lights on all the time can have a negative effect on your sleep and your stress control.  When your eyes are exposed to lights your pineal gland (a tiny endocrine organ in your brain) will not secrete the melatonin you need for a good night's sleep. Furthermore, studies have shown that the blue light emitted from our electronic devices can also impede melatonin production. So turn off that computer, TV and phone and turn your lights down. It may just help you catch some much needed ZZZs and help you kick the stress response to bed at the same time. Remember, it’s a viscous little cycle as stress keeps us from sleeping and not sleeping stresses the body. Try turning off those electronics in the evening and see if it makes a difference in your sleep and or your sleep quality.

Sadly, there are so many things in modern society  we are destroying our own bodies. The good news is, there are ways to reduce your stress response, by reducing your cortisol levels , we  can start seeing multiple benefits for your brain, your waistline, your skin and your immune system!

Are you with me? Who is ready to kick some cortisol? What are you willing to try first? Stay tuned for more posts about conquering cortisol.

For a deeper exploration of the role of cortisol and the consequences of long-term elevation of stress hormones in the body, read The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. and The Metabolic Plan by Stephen Cherniske, M.S

Read more about stress and the negative impact it has on your body and other ways to improve your reaction to stress and lessen its impact on your health:

Stress is killing me
How to Eat the stress away
Supplementing your Stress Response

Decompressing Ancient Medicine


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