Chronic stress degrades the cortisol function and our health along with it. But how do we eliminate chronic stress?
One accepted definition of stress is “A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease.” Synonyms for stress are tension, pressure, and strain. When a real or perceived threat is detected, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol or hydrocortisone into the blood which gets us ready for “fight or flight.” If the threat is a lion, tiger, or bear chasing us, cortisol gives us previously unknown speed for flight. If the threat is a locker-room argument, it will give you strength for the fight. In acute or immediate needs, cortisol is good and is called the “Stress Hormone” because it increases blood sugar giving you energy for rapid action. It also increases strength and speed, lowers the awareness of pain, aids in metabolism, and gives heightened mental focus. Besides dealing with potential danger, this mechanism is helpful in coping with other short-term demands, such as sports competition, work deadlines, and even having to give that dreaded public speech. Once the temporary stressor is gone, the cortisol reaction stops and the body’s systems return to normal.
Problems mount when the source of stress is not temporary but becomes constant and chronic. Conditions such as employment, financial, and marital problems, the death of a loved one, disability or illness, or just living in an increasingly complex and demanding world are long-term issues, and the cortisol “fight or flight” mechanism actually starts to degrade the body’s functions with negative effects:
- It suppresses the immune system
- It lowers thyroid function
- It increases blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
- It slows the healing process
- Causes osteoporosis from loss of bone density
- Contributes to muscle wasting
- Contributes to diabetes
- Increases appetite, obesity, and abdominal fat
- Toxic to brain cells, which increases depression and tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease
- Shuts down the reproductive system
Of course, we are each hardwired a little differently, so symptoms and degrees do vary from one individual to another.
Unfortunately, there is no sure fire way to eliminate chronic stress from our lives, though some try with alcohol and drugs, which tragically just multiplies the problem.
So, what’s a body to do? How are we to deal with the constant and ever increasing tension, pressure, and strain that have become our life?
Remember, it’s a “fight or flight” system, so that’s exactly what we should do. But, I mean fight with a set of weights or a yoga mat at the gym and flight on a treadmill or a mountain bike. Exercise actually burns off and uses up the cortisol as it is supposed to be used and then it mellows you out with those feel-good endorphins. By the way, romantic intimacy does much the same.
Many relaxation modalities are extremely effective at reversing strain and pressure. Massage, sauna and steam baths, and hot tubbing drain away tension. Meditation and deep breathing techniques help you decompress. Some report good results with journaling. One of the most effective methods to unwind is to listen to calming, soothing music, and I don’t mean heavy metal or gangsta rap, which actually have the opposite effect.
Nutritionally, eat a sensible, natural, balanced diet with smaller portions more often, supplemented with food-based vitamins and minerals.
As well-known talk show host, Dr. Laura always says, “Now, go out and take on the day.”