Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

Everything we do has consequences. What we do or don’t do what we say or don’t say…and yes, what we eat and drink or don’t eat and drink makes a difference. Not only do the choices we make impact the quality of our lives, they also impact the condition of our bodies.

The degree of our physical activity, the depth of our relationships and the attention we pay to our diet can have lasting consequences to how healthy and happy we are. Unseen and often totally forgotten by us, if we’re even aware of them in the first place, hormones silently work their magic or destruction in our bodies. When our bodies are working at their best, to a great extent it’s due to the fact that our hormones are balanced or in sync.

Did you know that hormones are the key to our well-being?

Hormones influence our thoughts, emotions, feelings and physical well being. When there’s an imbalance, even if it’s just one hormone gone awry, symptoms can begin sprouting like new grass seed on the seventh day. Often, they’re wide-ranging and can appear to be totally unrelated, contributing to misdiagnosis and improperly prescribed treatments that can worsen our problems.

We have four endocrine glands – the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries/testes and adrenals – that produce hormones upon demand. It is the latter, our adrenals, which are responsible for adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine), aldesterone and cortisol. Post menopause, our adrenals also produce estrogen and progesterone, albeit at reduced levels.

Cortisol regulates the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, reduces our immune system’s inflammatory response, and balances the effects of insulin which is responsible for breaking down glucose for energy, keeps our blood pressure in check and maintains cardiovascular function. All of these are vitally important, so it’s easy to see how an imbalance in cortisol levels can wreak havoc with our well being and health.

We’re all wired to respond differently to stress, so cortisol secretion varies between individuals.

By stress I’m not just referring to sudden, intense, life changing or threatening situations like death of a loved one, loss of a job, a serious accident or illness. Stress in our bodies, especially in our modern day world is also created by common, daily problems, petty annoyances, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, financial pressures, difficulties raising children, exposure to environmental toxins, and many other mundane and easily overlooked causes.

Small increases of cortisol for short periods of time have many positive and necessary effects in our bodies. Briefly raised cortisol can create a quick burst of energy for survival reasons, lower sensitivity to pain, heighten memory function, increase immunity and help maintain homeostasis (our body’s ability to physiologically regulate its inner environment) in our bodies.

But when levels of this hormone are raised even slightly for extended periods of time, or too much cortisol is repeatedly produced, the results are far from desirable. We may suffer impaired cognitive ability, raised blood pressure, decreased muscle mass and bone density, lowered immunity, slowed wound healing, blood sugar imbalances like hyper and hypoglycemia, suppressed thyroid function, increased abdominal fat contributing to raised risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, metabolic syndrome and Cushing’s syndrome.

In order to maintain healthy levels of cortisol it is essential that we learn how to relax.

Our ancestor’s cortisol levels were typically raised when they were threatened physically, and this reaction happened occasionally for short spurts. This “fight or flight” response enabled them to ward off danger, after which their bodies returned to normal cortisol levels once they were safe again.

Because we live in a highly stressful, problematic, intense and challenging world today, our fight or flight response is more frequently raised. In some people it’s constantly activated or permanently sustained, which can lead to adrenal fatigue. At this point sufferers often can’t work and even simple activities wear them out to the point they have to stop and rest. Many times this downward spiral ends with them being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

After the flight or fight response by our bodies is activated and our cortisol levels are raised, we need to be able to consciously turn-on our body’s relaxation response. Mastering relaxation techniques like guided imagery, breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, exercise, self- hypnosis, repetitive movement, and journaling is vital to our well-being. Even activities we enjoy such as gardening, playing a musical instrument, painting, walking our dog, loud singing, having sex and listening to music can have tremendously beneficial effects on our stress level.

With concentration and practice, it’s even possible to prevent our bodies from responding to stress in the first place!

This, of course, won’t happen overnight. But reducing any amount of stress, or shortening its duration, is preferable to allowing it to continue to ravage our bodies and negatively impact our lives. Take the first step and choose one of the techniques or activities mentioned above and begin to implement it today.

If you have ideas for unconventional stress relievers or productive stress management techniques, please be sure to share them with me. And remember to relax and enjoy yourself!

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