As we have seen in the previous articles about ‘The Good Chemicals’, our body produces and responds to many hormones. These help regulate our bodily and mental functions. They are part of biologically healthy life but they are also extremely susceptible to repeated chemical stimulations from external factors such as drugs and alcohol.
Unlike the four types of hormones previously discussed, which are involved in feelings of wellbeing when released, cortisol is our body’s main stress hormone. Produced mainly by adrenal glands beside our kidneys, cortisol is a natural ‘alarm system’. It helps control alertness, drive, and fear. It is also important in the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction when we face a crisis. After the stress or danger has passed, your cortisol level diminishes. Heart rate, blood pressure, and other body systems should get back to normal.
The body performs amazing feats every day, from sending high-speed signals through the brain to distributing oxygen through thousands of miles of blood vessels. None of its elements or functions is superfluous and it is often our lifestyle that negatively affects their natural workings.
However, if we are under constant pressure, cortisol levels remain high causing our bodies to function erratically. Long-term stress can lead to many health problems, including trouble sleeping, memory and concentration problems. It can also cause problems with digestion, weight gain, and, in some cases, anxiety and depression.
In recovery, in addition to facilitating productions of feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, we should pay attention to our level of stress. This should help limit overproduction of cortisol.
What can we do to limit the production of cortisol in our body?
The habits of a healthy lifestyle, often discussed in this blog, apply to cortisol as well. For example, sleeping well is fundamental. Insomnia causes high cortisol for up to 24 hours. Interruptions to sleep, even if brief, can also increase and disrupt daily hormone patterns.
We have also seen that exercise is key in achieving a healthier mind and body. However, when it comes to lowering cortisol not all types of physical activity are beneficial. In fact, intense workout increases cortisol quite significantly while moderate exercise leads to smaller rises. Hence, mild or moderate exercise – at 40–60% of maximum effort – does not increase cortisol in the short term, and leads to lower levels at night. The benefits of gentle exercise are discussed here: Gently Does it.
There are also additional activities and habits that we can introduce to our daily life that will lead to lower cortisol level. These are:
Relationships with friends and family can generate happiness but also stress. Studies have shown that children with a stable and loving family life have lower levels of cortisol than children from homes with high levels of conflict. Other research showed that affectionate interaction with a partner kept the level of cortisol low when dealing with a stressful activity immediately after. When we argue, non-judgmental empathy leads to a more rapid return of cortisol to normal levels. Conflict is part of life but if we don’t judge and we learn to forgive, our stress levels will remain at a healthy level.
Recognise our Thoughts and Feelings
Training ourselves to be aware of our feelings and thoughts can prevent stress becoming overwhelming. By focusing on awareness of your mental and physical state, we can become an objective observer of how stress is generated within us. This allows us to manage its course instead of becoming a victim of it. Feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy may also lead to negative thinking and elevated cortisol. Stress reduction through recognition involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking emotions. The aim is to learn how to calm worry or anxiety by acknowledging and understanding these stressful thoughts and emotions. Recognising our mental and physical state means becoming aware of our thoughts, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension that. This can be done through mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques and, if suitably usd can help keep our cortisol level low.
Various relaxation exercises have been proven to reduce cortisol levels. Meditation is the most effective way to reverse the physiological signs of stress. Scientific studies on Indian mediation masters demonstrate that it can slow the heart, lower blood pressure, reduce breathing rate, diminish the body’s oxygen consumption, reduce blood adrenaline levels, and change skin temperature. For those who have never tried it but fancy a go, click here for a beginner’s guide on how to start..
Even without formal meditation, slow, deep, regular breathing is an excellent way to reduce stress. Practise controlled breathing several times a day, even good days, and use it to help dissipate stress.
In addition, ‘progressive muscular relaxation’ is a technique to help us dissipate stress by relaxing our muscles. First, the practice focuses on the major muscle groups by tightening each muscle before slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, it leads to a sensation of relaxation in the body and mind. Muscle relaxation takes a bit of practice but this article contains the basic principles and an initial routine to set you off.
In summary, Cortisol is generated during stress; a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. For immediate, short-term situations, stress and cortisol are beneficial but if our cortisol levels stay high for longer than necessary they can take a toll on our health. We can manage our reactions so that cortisol does not overload in our system.