Cortisol and Stress
Stress. Few things are more familiar to us. In fact, it’s everywhere.
Let’s think about it for a moment:
How many times a day would you guess that you “stress?”
How many nights a week do you lie awake, worried about a situation?
How often does that nagging thought resurface throughout the day?
How do you care for yourself amidst all the stress you find in your life?
Money. Relationships. Car accidents. Loss of loved ones. Even the very thought of these.
They all affect our bodies.
The body responds to all stress is the same, even if the stressor is a looping thought that just won’t go away. Whether you’re getting chased by a bear or you’re worried about paying the bills, it’s all the same to your body and causes your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to fire up.
This function is both beautifully simple and complex.
Cortisol and stress
When we experience distress our SNS kicks in and says, “DANGER! PROTECT! I’M NOT OKAY!” What that will look like for you is dependent on many factors. Biologically, though, your body goes through a series of predictable physiological changes, including:
- Rapid breath and heart beat
- Increased body temperature
- Pupillary dilation
- Rise in blood pressure
- Flush or pale skin, depending on the individual
Because there are fibers of the SNS that extend into nearly every tissue in the body, effects of chronic stress are felt throughout the whole body.
Our brain function, stomach, large and small intestines, kidneys and reproductive organs are just a few systems that suffer. When stress isn’t simply momentary, but constant and unrelenting, our bodies never receive the cue from the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) that the danger has dissipated and we’re safe from harm once again.
The problem with never receiving the “all clear” signal is that the momentary bursts of hormones become chronic, and bodily processes like reproduction, digestion, memory, and kidney function, which were meant to be momentarily suppressed to allow us to make it to safety, become chronically suppressed, and our adrenals, which function as the body’s “shock absorbers” stay on, convinced that we’re still in emanate danger. All. The. Time.
Cortisol and weight
Most of us know cortisol as “the stress hormone.” As a society we have come understand that when we’re under a lot of stress, higher levels of cortisol cause us to gain weight. And we hate gaining weight! But how exactly is this true?
Cortisol is released by the adrenals when they receive notice that we’re in danger (be it a conflict, finances, or a rabid monkey chasing us). Cortisol then assists us in “getting away” by activating a long list of bodily processes, such as converting proteins to energy, attempting to combat stress, and restoring homeostasis in the body. Together, with decreased nutrition absorption from a depressed digestive system, weight gain is increasingly likely.
So, here we are. Coping with stress. All cylinders firing. And, as we know, prolonged excess cortisol causes us to start gaining weight. While this seems counter-intuitive, let’s consider how weight gain could be a protective measure. If you were really being chased by a rabid monkey, would you stop to eat? Probably not. Food is the last thing on your mind. Your body, being the intelligent, dynamic organism that is is, sustains you by packing on the pounds so you don’t need to stop and feed while fleeing for your life.
Cortisol and the immune system
And then, when you least need it, you start getting sick. Really sick. And you stay sick for a long, long time. When you do get better, you still feel run down.
Because cortisol blocks T-cells (a vital part of our immune response) from doing their job. We can cope with this temporarily, but over time the sustained roadblock T-cells encounter to do their job leaves us vulnerable to every little germ. And because the body is prioritizing the perceived threat against our lives, the bug that would give us the sniffles slips through undeterred.
Cortisol and memory
Initially, cortisol can give us great clarity in dangerous situations. However, it does so by suppressing function to the hippocampus where memories are processed and stored. Long term excess cortisol, as is present in chronic stress, overwhelms the hippocampus, causing it to atrophy, or waste away. (Don’t fret this too much, though! All signs are that, for the chronically stressed, this can be reversed!)
10 Wellness strategies for countering chronic stress (and balancing cortisol)
As with most health challenges, there is no one magical thing you can do to feel better. In fact, it’s my hope that it’s YOUR hope to not just feel better, but actually be better. What can we do to not only lower our cortisol levels, but to heal ourselves and move towards living as wholly integrated individuals?
1) First and foremost, it is essential that you look to put yourself first and find ways to destress and simplify life. There may be stressors that are beyond your control, so look for the things that you can do something about immediately.
2) Consider meditation. Recent research is proving what many cultures have asserted for centuries: meditation, particularly Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction reduces stress levels while increasing your ability to handle stressful situations.
3) Because sustained excess levels of cortisol work against insulin and increase blood sugar levels, it is important to move towards a food lifestyle where the majority of your foods are whole foods: foods that look like what they are.
4) Lots of good, healthy fats, such as coconut oil (available here) and avocado. Not only will this help stabilize your blood sugar, but it also helps to soothe frayed and tired nerves.
5) Eliminate stimulants from your diet, in all their forms. Energy drinks. Coffee. Caffeinated teas (white, green, black). Even refined sugars can stress an already-rev’d-up nervous system. While some can go “cold turkey,” you may find that you’re more successful if you eliminate one type at a time.
6) Water. Drink lots of water. Daily. Half your body weight in ounces, every day. (For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, your water intake goal for the day is 75 ounces.)
7) Get to bed by 10. This one’s the one that gets the most pushback. But it’s also one of the more important ones. Without sleep our body can’t rest recover. And those of us in the chronic stress camp need to get to bed by 10. If not, we may find ourselves up until 1-3 a.m.
8) Herbal and dietary supplements. Herbs that are nervine (nourishing to the nerves) and adaptogenic (supporting the body in adapting to stress) are going to be particularly helpful. My encouragement is to find a Naturopath or trained herbalist who will sit down, get to know you, and make specific suggestions. Herbs, like people, have personalities and nuances that help professionals know exactly the kind of person they will be helpful for. This is just one reason why your neighbor can have great success using chamomile to relax and it may do absolutely nothing for you.
9) Schedule down time. Ideally every day. Have time set aside that is meant for things that bring you peace and restoration.
10) Emotions. Although I put this last, don’t think it’s less important! From a Naturopathic perspective, there is an emotional component to our illnesses, especially if the illnesses are chronic. This mind-body connection is crucial! The adrenals and kidneys have a strong affinity to fear and a feeling of “I’m not safe.” Explore how these emotions might be showing up in your life.
Have you dealt with chronic stress? Comment below and let us know what has helped you! (or what you’re having a hard time with)