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Cortisol: The Stress Connection

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 stream, preparing us for “fight or flight.” If the threat is a lion, tiger, or bear, Cortisol gives us previously unknown speed for flight. If the threat is a locker room argument, it will give you strength for the fight.

cortisol_the_stress_connection_imageIn the face of such acute or immediate threats, Cortisol is a very good thing. This “stress hormone” increases blood sugar, giving you energy for rapid action. It also increases strength, boosts 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 competitions, work deadlines, and even having to give a dreaded public speech. Once the temporary stressor is past, the Cortisol reaction stops and the body’s systems return to normal.

However, problems mount when the source of stress is not temporary, but becomes constant and chronic. Chronic sources of stress come from conditions such as employment, financial difficulties, marital problems, the death of a loved one, disability, illness, or just living in an increasingly complex and demanding world. These long-term issues and the Cortisol “fight or flight” mechanism actually start to degrade the body’s functions over time with side effects like:

  • Suppressing the immune system
  • Lowering thyroid function
  • Increasing blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
  • Slowing the healing process
  • Causing osteoporosis from loss of bone density
  • Contributing to muscle wasting
  • Contributing to diabetes
  • Increasing appetite, obesity, and abdominal fat
  • Raising toxicity for brain cells
  • Increasing incidence of depression and tendency toward Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Shutting down the reproductive system

Of course we are each hard-wired a little differently, so symptoms and degree do vary from one individual to another.

What if I told you there was a sure-fire way to completely eliminate chronic stress from our lives? Sorry, not going to happen—though some people do try with alcohol and drugs which tragically just multiply the problems.

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?

exercise_burns_off_cortisol_imageRemember, it’s a “fight or flight” system, so that’s exactly what we should do, but not always literally. You can fight with a set of weights or a yoga mat at the gym and flight on a treadmill, stationary cycle, or elliptical machine. Exercise actually burns off and uses up the Cortisol and then 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 too. Massage, acupressure, saunas, steam baths, and hot tubs drain away tension. Meditation and deep breathing techniques help you decompress. Some people 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 frankly have the opposite effect.

Nutritionally, eat a sensible, natural, balanced diet with smaller portions more often, supplemented with truly food-based vitamins and minerals.

As a well known female talk show host always says, “Now, go out and take on the day.”

Learn more about Dr. Steve Weston

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