We have to approach stress management in a holistic manner, taking into account the magnitude of its impact on our entire body. The brain is the central organ for stress and stress’s starting point. It goes on to impact the neural, cardiovascular, autonomic, immune and metabolic systems (soo, everything!) in an acute or chronic way (aka short- or long-term). Now let’s add on the additional impact of our own personal behaviors like our diet, sleep quality, and toxic burden. It’s no wonder that our body has to have so many mediators/helpers that are involved in our stress response! A particularly important stress mediator is the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone (a glucocorticoid) produced in our adrenal glands from cholesterol. It plays a very vital role in our survival system, or as you may have heard of it, the “fight-or-flight” response. The fight-or-flight response/our stress response protects our bodies in perceived stressful or dangerous situations. Cortisol signals the body to do a bunch of things to help us, at the expense of other body processes that are not required for immediate survival (this is a very shortened version of a complex hormonal symphony). This process is protective and very important, yet with our current high-stress lifestyles – we’re in this constant cortisol overdrive and our poor bodies are suffering the consequences.
Put simply: back in our caveman days, the stress response of our bodies saved us from truly dangerous situations (like a saber tooth tiger attacking us). The problem is our bodies cannot tell the difference between the stress of running from a lion or meeting your work deadline or breaking up with your boyfriend. This is causing our bodies to be in fight-or-flight mode on a more frequent basis and allowing for the constant release of cortisol into our bloodstream.
Health Implications for Chronically Elevated Cortisol
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Prediabetes and type 2 diabetes
- Belly fat storage
- Increased hunger
- Susceptibility to colds/illness
- Increased cancer risk
- Tendency toward food allergies
- Intestinal absorption issues
- High blood pressure
- Arterial plaque buildup
- Increased cardiovascular risk
- Erectile dysfunction
- Disrupted ovulation
- Disrupted menstrual cycles
- Altered sex hormone production
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Thyroid disorders
Elevated cortisol levels are synonymous with systemic inflammation (our whole bodies become inflamed). We can take different approaches to naturally decrease inflammation, minimize stress, and therefore decrease cortisol levels. Anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle factors (a massive topic in itself) and other forms of stress management are all effective ways to manage cortisol’s negative impacts.
An indulgent way to manage stress is by practicing regular self-care.
Self-care is one of many effective stress management tools, therefore it reduces cortisol levels. It is defined as the care of oneself without medical, professional, or other assistance/oversight. This means we have total control!
Self-care can be simple daily acts of kindness to yourself or health.
- Make a gratitude list
- Start journaling
- Move your body, be active
- Eat nourishing foods
- Meditate for 5 minutes
- Allow moments of stillness to “be”
- Dry brush your body
- Make a cup of tea
- Call a loved one
- Use essential oils
- Have time outdoors or with plants
- Use non-toxic beauty products
- Drink plenty of water
Or more indulgent weekly or bi-weekly acts of self-care.
- Do a face or hair mask
- Take an Epsom salt bath
- Try Reiki or another healing energy modality
- Spend quality time with a loved one
- Try an infrared sauna or other therapies
- Go to a local farmers market
- Go to a new restaurant or store
- Get (or give yourself) a massage
- Get (or give yourself) a non-toxic facial
- Buy yourself fresh flowers
- Use non-toxic home products
Lowering cortisol is an expansive topic, with so many things we can cover. Self-care is a small, yet mighty, tool to have incorporated into your life to begin taking control of managing stress and lowering the cortisol levels in your body.
McEwen, B. (2009, April 7). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2474765/
Aronson, D. (2009, November). Cortisol- Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy. Today’s Dietitian, 38. Retrieved from http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml