Cortisol – Friend or Foe?

Cortisol

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We hear a lot about cortisol and its negative effect on the body…so much so, that we have come to think of cortisol as a bad thing.  Similar to how we have come to view insulin.  (See my article Insulin – Friend or Foe HERE.)  But ask a person with Type 1 diabetes (no insulin) how difficult it is to manage health without insulin, and you will realize that insulin is our friend.  It is TOO MUCH insulin that is the problem.  Well, it is the same with cortisol.  Cortisol is an amazingly vital substance made by our body, and, in proper amounts, is absolutely crucial to our survival.  Let’s take a look at this amazing hormone.  What is it and why do we need it?  What happens when we have too much?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands typically in response to stress (or perceived stress).  Cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning to help us wake up and get all of our body processes moving for the day.  Cortisol levels can also raise with exercise, as we are taking our body temporarily out of its comfort zone.  But one of the main functions cortisol plays is in our body’s response to a stressor, particularly our “fight or flight” response.  That is why we call it our “stress hormone.”

Let’s be clear, if you are walking across the street and see a car barreling toward you at 50 mph, YOU WANT CORTISOL.  When cortisol is released, along with other stress hormones, like adrenaline, your body will be able to mount a “fight or flight” response, which is crucial to our survival.  What happens in fight or flight response?

Our liver will kindly dump some glucose into our bloodstream for quick energy.  Our heart rate and blood pressure will increase.  Our body will shunt more blood to important organs such as the heart (to have more oxygen to pump to where it will be needed) and brain (so that we can think more clearly to make split second decisions).  The body will temporarily down-regulate less important functions, like digestion or elimination.  Our immune system will be temporarily depressed.  We will be “on edge” with heightened senses, ready to make a move.  (Ever just HEAR squealing tires in traffic and feel on edge?  How many minutes did it take you to feel normal again?)

Here is cortisol in action…

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So what’s all the hubbub about cortisol?  The problem, as with insulin, is TOO MUCH cortisol.  When we live with chronic, uncontrolled stress, our body is preparing for this fight or flight response (that never happens.)  So our blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate might be chronically high.  We are on edge, moody.  We have poor digestion, stomach aches.  We have poor elimination, constipation. We will have poor immune function, be frequently ill.  Over time, our adrenal glands will tire out from the over-production of these stress hormones, leading to adrenal fatigue, possibly chronic physical and mental fatigue or depression.

So what do we do if our life is full of stressors that we have ABSOLUTELY no control over?  Sometimes, we THINK we have no control over our stressors, but for some of them, we really do.  When I used to work night shift in a hospital with critically ill patients, I knew my stress levels were too high.  I knew I HAD to stop working nights.  But my family was dependent on my working those hours.  What did I do?  I made an uncomfortable decision to put my health first and let the chips fall where they may.  I took a decrease in pay to work more normal hours.  It was uncomfortable for a time.  But in the end, it all worked out.  Adjustments were made and now I have restored health, adequate income to care for my family and a schedule that works for all of us.  Sometimes, we have to make tough decisions, leave good paying jobs, terminate toxic relationships, etc.

After we have made some tough decisions, there may still be some stressors left that there is no way out of.  Dealing with a chronic illness (ours or a family member’s), financial problems, family problems, etc.  We may NOT be able to change or eliminate all of our stressors.  So, then it will be a question of, “how can we more effectively DEAL with our stressors?”

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The best way to deal with stressors is to improve our health.  Eating healthy is the biggest part of that equation.  Eat real food, cut out as much processed food as possible.  SLEEP, SLEEP, SLEEP.  I can’t stress this enough.  Sleep is absolutely crucial to our ability to cope with stress.  (For helpful sleep tips, see my article HERE.) Exercise is also a key player, as exercise can help reduce stress. How?  Exercise increases cortisol, right?  While that is true, regular exercise can condition our body to have a better response to stress and therefore, over time, allow us to require less cortisol release.  Let’s use an example.  Our heart rate also increases with exercise, but over time, our heart becomes stronger so that our RESTING heart rate actually lowers when we condition ourselves with exercise.  None of us skips exercise because it makes our heart rate go up, right?  In fact, many of us measure our heart rate during the PEAK of exercise to MAKE SURE our heart rate gets HIGH ENOUGH so that we are getting adequate cardiovascular benefit.   It is similar with cortisol and exercise.  For instance, if you begin power walking a mile per day, your body will perceive this as a stressor and increase cortisol.  But, if you do it every day, over time, you body will perceive this as normal activity and will no longer consider it a stressor.  So your body will not require as much cortisol for this activity.  Now, if  you increase your walk to 30 minutes per day, your body might again increase cortisol, because it is out of your comfort zone.  But over time, 30 minutes will become routine.  So regular exercise, over time, will condition our body to require less cortisol for dealing with this perceived stressor.  So don’t avoid exercise under the mistaken reasoning that it will increase your cortisol, and that is bad.  Eating right, sleep and exercise are the primary keys to stress control.  I know, I know, I sound like a broken record, but what can I say, these three things are the absolute foundation to good health.

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Then, we must PRACTICE ACTIVE stress reduction techniques.  By ACTIVE, I mean that we can’t just hope that stress will resolve itself.  We have to actively do something about it.  You MUST take a small portion of your day to deal with stress.  And don’t say you don’t have time.  Turn off the TV for 20 minutes and you have time.  Go to a quiet place, maybe even a dark place, that is cool and comfortable.  Lock the door!  Deep breathe and stretch.  Listen to some relaxation music.  Use essential oils to help calm you.  Aromatherapy is an EXTREMELY powerful tool.  Don’t underestimate it.  I use essential oils EVERY DAY and they have made a HUGE impact on my life.  (For more information about essential oils, go to my essential oils page HERE).  If you are a spiritual person, incorporate some type of spiritual activity, whatever that means to you.  Or, get a massage, do pilates, take a detox bath.

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Or, maybe for you, an equally effective method of stress release is to hit a punching bag and sweat it out.  That’s great too.  Whatever it takes for you to release stress and feel stronger.  I have found that since I have incorporated strength training into my exercise regimen, I feel stronger overall and empowered.  My overall mood and sense of well being is greatly improved.

Find your stress reliever and DO IT every day, or as often as you can.

So, hopefully, we have found a new respect for this amazing and absolutely vital hormone.  But just as with insulin, we have to adjust our lifestyle to keep it from running amuck!

Wishing good health to you!