Reduce stress we are told. In fact stress contributes to 95% of disease. When I work with clients and in most of my blog posts, related to all types of topics, reducing stress is a key tool for improving health outcomes. Stress is rampant, it’s excessive, and it’s wrecking our health.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone excreted by our adrenal glands. These are little walnut-sized glands that sit on top of our kidneys. We need cortisol in the right amounts so that we have the right amount of energy to get out of bed in the morning and start the day and so that we can continue through our day with sustained energy. Cortisol should then drop by the evening so that melatonin can rise and we can have a restorative night’s sleep. Cortisol is also excreted when we experience stress, this is usually too much cortisol.
Our cortisol should look like a nice ski slope curve. I love to ski! High in the morning and then slowly declining as the day goes on is what we want to see. I love a steep ski run, but we don’t want our cortisol to have that steep of a drop, we’d be low energy in the afternoon if that happened. We want a nice slow slope so that we have steady energy throughout the day. This would be a boring day of skiing but for cortisol, it’s ideal. With a nearly flat curve, energy starts low and remains low for the day. When the adrenal glands are constantly excreting cortisol, they start to get tired and cortisol takes on a flat appearance in a test, rather than the nice ski slope we’d like to see.
Cortisol in the Goldilocks Position
Cortisol is a very important hormone in our body for energy, we wouldn’t’ survive without it. But when it’s excessive and for too long, it’s detrimental to our health. We want cortisol in the goldilocks position, not too much and not too little. When we reduce stress we keep cortisol in the desired position.
Fight or Flight vs Rest and Digest
Cortisol is excreted by our adrenal glands when we experience stress. It does this as part of our autonomic nervous system, our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as “fight or flight”. When we experience a stressor, which could be being chased by an animal, a big presentation at work or a fight with a spouse, our adrenal glands excrete cortisol and adrenaline. This raises our blood pressure and blood sugar and suppresses digestion. The opposite of this is the parasympathetic response or “rest and digest”. Too much “flight or fight” and not enough “rest and digest” and we start to feel very imbalanced, stressed, and sick. This happens with chronic stress like a job you dislike, a divorce, any ongoing stressor that causes you to be in “fight or flight” for many hours each day.
Excessive or Insufficient Cortisol
This excessive level of cortisol causes us to feel “stressed and wired” and we may have weight gain (especially in the middle), immune resistance (more likely to get sick or trigger an autoimmune disease), insomnia, irritability and tension, and anxiety.
With insufficient cortisol or what is known as adrenal fatigue, we feel “stressed and tired” we may have low energy, increased histamine response (seasonal or food allergies), brain fog, flat affect, insomnia, or depression and anxiety.
Stress Bank Account
I like to use the analogy of a bank account. When you make a withdrawal, you need to then make a deposit. The withdraw is stress or an event that causes the body to excrete cortisol above what our body does naturally. And the deposit is some form of stress management or self-care. If we live in chronic stress, we are constantly withdrawing and we will start to feel symptoms when the balance goes negative. In order to prevent that, we need to be making deposits. For example, you get home from a very stressful day at work so there were some big withdrawals, let’s make sure to make some deposits. Some ideas include:
- A 20-minute meditation session
- Turn off your phone for the evening so that no more stressors come in
- Workout or go for a walk.
- Have a nourishing whole food dinner, where you sit and eat slowly and mindfully.
- Snuggle with your children or pets and some other calming activities in the evening (reading, bath, enjoyable conversation).
- Go bed at a reasonable hour to encourage a restorative night of sleep.
And in the case of chronic stress, like this pandemic, it’s very important to be constantly thinking about depositing back into your stress bank account in order to prevent a negative balance and the negative symptoms that go along with it.
Seven Tips to Reduce Stress
1. Implement a meditation practice
Meditation cultivates adaptability and resilience (1). Frequently practicing for as little as 10 minutes a day can help you reduce stress so you are more able to manage strong emotions and stressful situations, like traffic or a grumpy toddler. Apps for meditation: Calm, Headspace, Muse, Waking Up, Insight Timer. My favorites are Headspace and Muse give them a try and find one that you like!
2. Get regular exercise
Exercise should also be in the goldilocks position, not too little and not too much. Excessive and very rigorous exercise will produce too much stress on the body if you have already made too many withdraws. We want the exercise to be a deposit in the stress bank account, not a withdraw. In times of extreme stress, you may benefit from gentle yoga, a walk, or meditation more than a tough workout to reduce stress.
3. Watch caffeine intake!
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. Once consumed it causes alertness right away. It temporarily relieves drowsiness and fatigue. Too much caffeine can overstimulate the brain causing cortisol excretion as your body perceives this as a stressor. If you rely on caffeine to get through your day, it’s time to reduce your consumption and work to reduce stress.
4. Cut out sugar!
When cortisol is high, our cravings for sugar increase. The more sugar we consume the more we crave it. The highs and lows that occur to our blood sugar with eating sugar means more cortisol is excreted. To reduce stress we must reduce the consumption of the white stuff! Excessive sugar in our diet is a withdraw from the stress bank account. Refer to my recent blog post on quitting sugar HERE
5. Eat whole, real food including healthy fats at every meal
Healthy fat is very satiating and nourishing. Fat is essential for every function of the body and brain including healing and repairing functions. When you eat enough healthy fat you enjoy the benefits of stable, longer-lasting energy, fewer hunger highs, and lows, more efficient metabolism, clearer thinking and more balanced moods; healthier hormones; better hair, nails, and skin.
6. Prioritize Sleep
It’s one of our most fundamental needs and yet, it suffers. Sleep is our time to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Our body repairs, restores, maintains and detoxifies itself. A good night’s sleep is a big deposit in our stress bank account.
Refer to my blog on sleep HERE
7. Consider these supplements
Adaptogens are traditional herbs that help us be more resilient to stress. They improve our ability to handle stress demands without becoming exhausted or overwhelmed. (2)
These can be consumed as a tea, a tincture, or a pill form.
Look for Ashwagandha, Panax Ginseng, Rhodiola, Cordyceps, Maca, Astragalus, Licorice Root, and Tulsi (Holy Basil).
Nervines are another group of herbs that support a healthy nervous system. They calm the system down.
Examples are: Chamomile, Catnip, Passion Flower, Lemon Balm, Lavender, Skullcap and Valarian
1. How To Be Well by Frank Lipman, MD
2. The Anti-Anxiety Diet by Ali Miller, RD, LD, CDE