From the start of my Nutritional Therapy program, I’ve been interested in learning more about hormones and their power over our systems. I’ve heard so many cries for help over the years that stemmed from hormonal dysregulation and had hoped to specialize in hormonal imbalances in respect to nutrition.
Naturally, upon starting the chapter on Endocrine Systems, I was biting at the bit.
What’s fascinating, is that the endocrine system not only regulates our metabolism and sleep cycle, but drives our reproductive health and stress responses. It deals with practically every communication pathway our body uses.
As I got into the nitty-gritty of hormones, I really took an interest in cortisol function. Perhaps it was due to my own lack-luster stress management? Maybe. So that’s what I’m talking about today. Cortisol and stress.
The ‘quick and dirty’ on cortisol.
- The adrenals produce cortisol.
- Its function is essentially made for two situations: 1. stress response and 2. natural circadian rhythms.
- Stress – the fight or flight feeling
- Circadian rhythms – gets us up and out of bed and energized throughout the day
Its function starts with our body’s thermostat, the hypothalamus.
Hypothalamus senses stress > stimulates production of hormone (sends communication) > to pituitary gland > pituitary gland produces hormone that sends communication to stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
Alright, now that cortisol has been produced. Why’s it so important?
Cortisol regulates, influences or moderates TONS of bodily functions, including:
- Blood sugar levels
- Immune system
- Blood pressure
There you have it. It is THAT important.
Remember – cortisol isn’t a bad thing. We need cortisol. Again, it’s what gets us up and moving in the morning and is imperative for when we need it for the stress response: fight or flight.
However, that can also be the main issue. When the stress response is not a rare, singular event – but a chronic, daily response.
“Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the stress response is activated so often that the body has difficulties returning to normal.” With prolonged stress, our functions are firing on all cylinders, using energy to continue to produce and pump out hormones, including cortisol.
Our bodies are flooded with cortisol and other hormones in excess.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Leading to and including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
When cortisol is released and active in the body, our immune system is suppressed. This may be helpful when running from a predator; but it is not helpful when we have chronically-high stress levels. It becomes more difficult for our bodies to fight off sickness or even lose weight when our stress (cortisol) is constantly heightened.
How do we combat our over-active stressful lives?
It’s hard to do! Lately, I’ve been aware of how much stress has drastically affected me. No perfect diet or committed workout regime will mitigate a chronically-high stress-filled life.
Steps to live a more stress-free life
- Unplug. I just got back from a weekend in the woods. My father took me out to an environmental center where we walked the trails, mediated and just listened and absorbed nature. Unplugging allows the mind to relax and slow down.
- Stay positive. It’s easy to get real negative during stressful situations. Cortisol DOES affect your mood, so it’s easy to be grumpy when you’re stressed. If you can’t force those positive thoughts – laugh. Laughter lowers those stress hormones (and reduces inflammation).
- Breath. Sure, it’s something we rarely take time to think about, but, focusing and controlling our breathing can calm us down almost instantly. When you feel stress coming on, take 2 minutes to close your eyes and focus on long, deep inhales and exhales.
- Choose wisely. When we’re stressed, our decisions need a little extra thought. The activities we do in our normal lives may be habitual, but we may need to try something different in times of high stress. Are we used to that cup of coffee in the afternoon? Perhaps we skip out on that (and let our adrenals rest) when we’re feeling especially stressed. Prime example: This weekend, I usually do my CrossFit workout. I had been feeling especially stressed over the weekend, so a workout that I normally would feel great during, felt horrible. I felt stressed, emotional and just completely off during it. My body would have been better served doing something more relaxing like yoga or a casual run.
- Reach out. I learned this one from the BF – and it may be one of my favorite ways to mitigate stress. Reach out to someone. Be it someone in need, your parents or your best friend. Reach out to them – talk, surprise them, or a random act of kindness. By doing something FOR someone else; the joy it will bring them, will in turn, bring joy to you.
Have a great week!