For years you’ve heard about the effects of stress on your body, but you may not have known precisely how it works to sabotage your health. Your primary care physicians at The Medical Group of South Florida want to focus on cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone,” and its impact on nearly every part of your body.
Psychology Today calls cortisol “Public Enemy No. 1,” and lists just some of the ways elevated cortisol levels can be detrimental to your health: interfering with learning and memory; lowering immune function and bone density; increasing weight gain; elevating blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well as rates of heart disease; increasing risk for depression; and, lowering life expectancy overall.
Two studies published in the journal Science also identified elevated cortisol as a potential spark for mental illness and decreased resilience. Other studies have found that excess cortisol suppresses thyroid function, triggers digestive problems and headaches, and contributes to insomnia.
Secreted by the adrenal glands, the hormone cortisol is necessary to maintain life. Among other things, it regulates the metabolism of glucose, aids in the immune function, and helps repair tissue damage. When released into the body through the fight-or-flight syndrome, cortisol imparts the sudden burst of energy needed to flee the sabre-tooth tiger or dodge that oncoming truck.
Unfortunately, in our modern, chronically stressed world, the system that your body elegantly evolved to deal with acute stress becomes an enemy. Starting with the aptly named “alarm” clock in the morning, then the rush to work, in traffic filled with drivers who delight in cutting you off, to the meeting where your boss berates you in public, to the speech you have to deliver, to the frantic phone call from your child’s school, to . . . well, you get the idea. The stress never seems to stop; thus, your cortisol levels never have a chance to drop back to normal, and this results in the chronic—and even deadly—illnesses listed above.
That is why it’s vital to learn to cope with the daily stress in your life. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Eat well.
Skip the sweets, fats, starches, processed foods, and caffeine whenever possible. Baby your body with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and nuts.
2. Practice deep breathing.
If you take just five minutes a day to practice abdominal breathing, your stress levels will drop markedly almost at once. Lying on your back, place one hand on your chest, the other on your abdomen. Breathe slowly through your nose, trying not to let the hand on your chest move at all, while the hand on your belly rises and lowers with each breath. This exercise forces air deep into your lungs and helps release toxins from your body.
3. Exercise, preferably outdoors.
Any type of exercise, from yoga or tai chi to swimming or tennis, is the perfect stress-reliever, because it gives an outlet to the cortisol flooding your body. Even a 10-minute walk will help.
4. Listen to music.
Any type of music, as long as you enjoy it, will relieve stress. Play it yourself or listen to it, the result is the same. Research shows music produces opiates and endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones that will counteract cortisol.
5. Engage in a hobby.
Gardening, painting, shell collecting, golf: Anything that you can focus on fully will take your mind off your stressors and allow your body to adjust cortisol levels to normal.
If these tips aren’t producing the results you seek, please talk to us. There are other strategies, supplements, and medications that can help you live a calmer, more stress-free life. Your doctors at The Medical Group of South Florida can help you find the best solution.