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How to Manage Stress & Cortisol and Improve Your Health

2020 has been a special year. I'm not sure what mental state you are currently in but at some point in 2020, your stress levels were likely higher than normal. Mine certainly were.  In fact, According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. That's a staggering number!

And it's not just the imminent impact that stress has on the body; it's the long term impact of stress that concerns me. That's why I want to explain to you the implications of stress, specifically for women, and some practical tips on how to reduce the effects of stress.  Because let's face it, we live in a broken world, and we will likely never eliminate stress from our lives. But we can certainly reduce our reaction or our resiliency to stressful situations.

If we are discussing stress, we have to discuss our adrenal glands. 

Role of our adrenal glands in a nutshell?

The adrenal glands are powerful glands sitting right on top of our kidneys.  They are key to our health, and if they are out of balance, our health will suffer. 

The adrenals produce various hormones, but the one I want to focus on today is cortisol.

Cortisol is essential for maintaining homeostasis and maintaining life because most body cells have cortisol receptor sites. It helps regulate: blood sugar, immune response, anti-inflammatory response, blood pressure, heart muscle contractions, nervous system function, fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism, keeps you awake, communicates with the GI tract.   

Cortisol is a natural substance that the body NEEDS to function.  For instance, cortisol is the hormone that causes us to wake up in the morning. Cortisol levels are expected to be highest in the morning (approx 8:00 am) and reach the lowest levels between midnight and 4:am or 3-5 hours after sleep onset. However, when the body overproduces cortisol is when we encounter issues.

Stress response

In times of heightened stress,  the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal glands release a surge of neurotransmitters, like epinephrine; this causes increased heart rate, hypertension, excess sweating (diaphoresis), increased respiratory rate, and increased blood glucose. At this point, energy is drawn away from the digestive tract, and the body moves from a parasympathetic state to a sympathetic state. As the body continues to perceive a threat, the hypothalamus activates the HPA axis. Cortisol is released from the adrenal cortex and allows the body to continue to stay on high alert. When the threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system reduces the stress response.

I want to highlight two things here:

  1. Our bodies were designed to respond to stress in this manner to allow us to survive. To run from the impending threat - such a bear.  However, the problem is when we are continuously living in this state of stress. Most of us are under continuous stress (whether perceived or real), and herein lies the problem.  Our body is constantly functioning in a sympathetic state, which eventually takes a toll on our adrenal function.
  2. The second thing I want to point out is that the stress is both internal stress and external stress. Internal stress includes your inner critic, pessimism, inability to accept uncertainty, perfectionism, and unforgiveness.  It also includes skipping a meal, depriving yourself of something you’d really like to eat (striving for a perfect diet), and caffeine dependence (coffee has been studied to increase cortisol production).

If stress levels are not properly managed, cortisol will remain high for a period of time. Eventually, however, cortisol levels will dip as the body can no longer handle the high cortisol levels. 

What Happens When Cortisol Is High?

  • Metabolic disorders: High blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, Osteoporosis
  • Weight gain: Cortisol increases appetite and signals the body to shift metabolism to store fat
  • Tiredness: It interferes with daily cycles of other hormones, disrupting sleep patterns and causing fatigue
  • Impaired brain function: Cortisol interferes with memory, contributing to mental cloudiness or "brain fog."
  • Infections: It hampers the immune system, making you more prone to infections
  • Menopausal symptoms (hot flashes, disturbed sleep, elevated cholesterol, weight gain)
  • Can lead to hypothyroidism: Cortisol decreases TSH, lowering thyroid hormone production. Cortisol inhibits the conversion of T4 to active T3 and increases the conversion of T4 to reverse T3.
  • Hair loss/thinning
  • Female hormonal imbalances: including estrogen dominance, PMS, reduced progesterone levels. 
  • Anxiety/Depression 
  • Gut imbalances leading to skin disorders such as psoriasis & eczema

What Happens When Cortisol Is Low

If left unchecked, eventually, cortisol production will be depleted, and in addition to the above factors, we can develop the following issues:

  • Chronic fatigue: morning and evening fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Cold body temperature
  • Decreased stamina
  • Slow pulse rate
  • Low blood sugar (sugar craving)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sensitivity to chemicals

So what can we do to manage stress & our cortisol production?

We have so many tools at our disposal to help manage stress and rebalance our cortisol levels but I will discuss my top five recommendations. 

1. Breathe deeply through the nose:

Our bodies are engineered to breathe deeply by moving our abdomens in and out. When we are in survival mode our breathing is quick and shallow. Your brain determines your breath pattern, but thankfully your breath pattern can also impact the brain.  Breathing from the deep diaphragm reverses the effects of stress and stimulates the flow of lymphatic fluid throughout the body.

 For the first few times you do this exercise, place your right palm on your stomach directly over your belly button. Breathe in deeply with the intention of moving your hand out with the inhalation and letting it move back in as you exhale. You should clearly see our hand move several inches when doing it properly.  Close your eyes and slowly inhale through your nose as you expand your abdomen in as tight as you can. Plan for three breaths for a quick refresh and ten breaths for a thorough reset anytime you need it.

2. Eat meals at regular intervals:

Our bodies have been created with a natural rhythm. And they come to expect food and water at regular intervals. Eating at regular times also ensures your blood sugar remains stable, which also helps to keep your cortisol levels stable. So try to eat 3 balanced meals each day and only snack in between when necessary. Give yourself a break from eating for at least 12 hours a day and try not to snack through the evening hours. Balanced meals will include sufficient protein, fat, and plenty of vegetables.

3. Wean off your dependence on caffeine, sugar & alcohol:

Limit your alcohol intake. You might think it relaxes you, but alcohol actually increases cortisol production.  Try to reduce or eliminate your intake of caffeine, sugar, and processed food. If you are a coffee drinker, try to have it before 3:00 pm. However, try to eliminate or reduce morning coffee habit.  Our bodies are lazy and will become dependent on coffee to trigger the body to secrete cortisol instead of naturally secreting it in the morning.

4. Add some calming herbs:

I love adding herbs to our diet through teas as well as loose herbs that you can add to your meals. Here are my three favorites:

Ashwagandha (Withania): Reverses stress-induced illness and reduces plasma cortisol, it is a serotonin-boosting tonic herb that if taken at night helps improve sleep. It is the only sedative adaptogen so it's really helpful when we have a lot of anxiety or restlessness.

Maca: This is a Peruvian root that is commonly used to help balance mood during menopause. It improves fertility in animal studies and is used traditionally to increase sex drive and fertility in both men and women. High in antioxidants, this adaptogenic herb helps the body to cope with stress.

Holy basil: I love this as an evening tea as it supports the nervous system and calms the mind and spirit. This adaptogenic herb has also been shown to reduce blood sugar and lipids and has been shown to be hepatoprotective (protects the liver).

5. Move your body:

Find the right exercise suited for your body. Vigorous high impact and high-intensity exercise will increase cortisol production. So if you have signs of high cortisol this may not be the best form of exercise for you. Instead try walking, yoga, or pilates. If however, you have symptoms of low cortisol, you'd benefit from higher intensity workouts that you find enjoyable like dance or HIIT. Whatever the case, move your body. Our bodies need physical activity!

Give some of these recommendations a try and see your stress reactions improve over time. If you would like further support with your health, connect with me. 

Schedule a free exploration call where we will get to know you, share what to expect and what coaching would look like for your unique needs.

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