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The good, the bad and…the Cortisol

The good, the bad and…the Cortisol

Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones and it is made in the adrenal glands. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. In a nutshell, Cortisol it’s notably known to be the “the stress hormone” that’s for a good reason indeed.

The cortisol, once released, can be received by most of the bodily cells, so it can affect many different functions in the body.

Cortisol can do really a lot of positive things to our body, such as:

-helping control blood sugar levels

-regulating metabolism

-reducing inflammation

-and much more…

In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. If so, why cortisol is commonly considered as “bad” and often included among the stress response biomarkers?

All of its functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being under normal circumstances, that’s really true.

On the other side, our lifestyle and daily demands are constantly altering or unbalancing the cortisol levels in our system, and here comes the bad side of cortisol.

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Bear in mind that cortisol is also the major age-accelerating hormone. Cortisol is able to weaken immune function, reduce bone formation through calcium absorption, and create a loss of collagen (which weakens support in muscles, tendons, and joints).

Cortisol also counteracts insulin, contributing to high blood sugar and that’s why cortisol is also linked to weight gain and storing of belly fat. In a nutshell…we don’t want to interfere with the normal functions of our body, and in particular with the levels of cortisol inside our personal living system. But, what can be considered as “normal” and under which circumstances?

Variability of Cortisol levels

In a ‘normal’ situation (i.e. you are not chased by a lion or undergoing any similar life threatening situation…) and for a person not suffering of any particular disease, Mr. Cortisol’s typical day can be schematized as follows:

corti1

    Cortisol production is at its peak around 30 minutes after waking up. And this is actually needed, to ensure a correct and fresh waking up (you can kick the adrenals up drinking some lemon water with a pinch of salt, it’s worth the try, or sun exposure, that will help as well).

    Then, the levels of cortisols gradually fade to a minimum before going to sleep, so reasonably low levels of cortisol in the evening are more than welcome.

    Beside that, we all know that during the day we receive external stimuli or we can face events that cause us to undergo “stressful” situations, and so a series of chemical reactions start inside our body. One of the consequences of this chemical production is to have peaks of cortisol when we don’t want.

    corti2

      When a stressor occurs, in fact, our limbic system, a more primitive part of our brain, instantly responds to danger and thus we face a “fight or flight” response.

      In the old times we, as humans, used to consider a stressor any life threatening situation (see lion above) so this primordial reaction is something we inherited from our ancestors, and it’s not so bad, in line of principle.

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      But nowadays we rarely have the same type of life threatening situations inducing a “fight or flight” response: the predatory attacks of the new era are completely different things, such as demanding tasks, losing our keys, starting a new company, or in-laws coming for Thanksgiving.

      The problem is that, in terms of chemical reactions, the above situations are considered pretty much the same from our inner body.

      A big difference in today’s world, though, is represented by the frequency and the intensity of the stimuli. Something occurring rarely in the prehistoric era (i.e. predator attack) is now occurring more frequently, almost on every day, with less intensity but still effective in terms of body reaction to the stimulus.

      In the long run, the fight or flight stress response is not even turning off, thus, the cortisol levels are not following the normal path as they should be and they remain relatively high during the evening, impacting consequently on the quality of our sleep and body recovery.

      In addition to that, there are other elements and situations inducing the release of cortisol in our organism, and these are, again, associated with the lifestyle of the modern era. Some examples of conditions releasing cortisol are:

      -Staying up late

      -Poor sleep

      -Caffeine intake

      -Poor diet

      -A non properly planned workout routine

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      -many others…

      So, what to do to keep cortisol levels under control?

      6 things to do to manage cortisol

      Spending time in Theta

      No, it’s not the name of a fancy island or a new planet on another constellation. I am talking about brain waves, and in particular about the ones linked to the brain state of REM sleep (dreams), lucid dreaming and advanced levels of meditation.

      To cut it short: in a state of very deep relaxation our brain produces waves at a slow frequency of 4-7 cycles per second. This stage it’s extremely calming and it’s really body-restoring. Factors like high levels of stress, overconsumption of caffeine during the day and the faced-paced lifestyle could have an impact on our transition to deep sleep.

      Acting on stress reduction, with meditation, as example, will consequently drop down the cortisol levels.

      Drink milk (or, better, its peptides)

      In various studies, the administration of milk peptides resulted in a net reduction in cortisol of -20.69% when compared with the placebo group. It turns out that nutrients found in cow’s milk (the bioactive peptides) exert a sedative effect on the brain. This is also the reason why a warm glass of milk helps to fall asleep, since generations.

      Eat better

      I know, this ‘magic’ solution seems to be everywhere, but it’s true: we are what we eat, and an anti inflammatory diet, eating whole food, would help lowering cortisol levels.

      Extensive research has shown that a high quality fish oil like cod liver oil or krill oil, rich in omega-3s and fat-soluble vitamins, can effectively lower cortisol levels that were increased by mental stress.

      Sleep and Recovery

      Sleep deficit has been linked to elevate cortisol levels (and for prolonged hours) in helicopter pilots on 7-day duty for emergency medical services. Although the test has involved a particular category of workers (and work related stress), the association between lack of sleep and cortisol is still valid: so hit the sack early, or take a nap.

      Switch to tea

      Caffeine elevates cortisol levels, so drink your coffee, but try to switch to tea or decaf after 2pm or anyway at least 6/8 hours before bedtime, your body will thank you.

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      Eat more fruit

      Oranges and grapefruits, in particular. These 2 citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C, which has been linked to reduced cortisol levels. A study in 2001 examined the effects of supplemental vitamin C on high cortisol levels brought about by physical stress in marathon runners. Ultramarathon runners were given 500 mg a day of vitamin C, 1500 mg a day of vitamin C, or a placebo seven days before a marathon, the day of the race, and two days after the race. Researchers found that athletes who took 1500 mg per day of vitamin C had significantly lower post-race cortisol levels than those taking either 500 mg a day or placebo.

      Resources:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stressor

      http://samples.sainsburysebooks.co.uk/9780471651581_sample_266798.pdf

      https://labtestsonline.org/understanding/conditions/cushing/

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15517308

      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030294770260

      http://www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(00)74983-6/fulltext?mobileUi=0

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15558991

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2249754/

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11590482

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      Last Updated on December 9, 2019

      5 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress Effectively

      5 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress Effectively

      Everyone experiences mental stress at one time or another. Maybe you’re starting a new career, job, or business, or you feel incredibly overwhelmed between work, parenting, and your love life (or a lack of it). It could even be that you simply feel that you have way too much to do and not enough time to do it,  plus, on top of everything, nothing seems to be going the way it should!

      Yup, we all experience mental stress from time-to-time, and that’s okay as long as you have the tools, techniques and knowledge that allow you to fully relieve it once it comes.

      Here are 5 tips for relieving mental stress when it comes so you can function at your best while feeling good (and doing well) in work, love, or life:

      1. Get Rationally Optimistic

      Mental stress starts with your perception of your experiences. For instance, most people get stressed out when they perceive their reality as “being wrong” in some way. Essentially, they have a set idea of how things “should be” at any given moment, and when reality ends up being different (not even necessarily bad), they get stressed.

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      This process is simply a result of perception and can be easily “fixed” by recognizing that although life might not always be going as YOU think it should, it’s still going as it should—for your own benefit.

      In fact, once you fully recognize that everything in your life ultimately happens for your own growth, progress, and development—so you can achieve your goals and dreams—your perception works in your favor. You soon process and respond to your experience of life differently, for your advantage. That’s the essence of becoming “rationally optimistic.”

      The result: no more mental stress.

      2. Unplug

      Just like you might need to unplug your computer when it starts acting all crazy, you should also “unplug” your mind.

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      How on earth do you unplug your mind? Simple: just meditate.

      It isn’t nearly difficult or complicated as some people think, so, if you don’t already meditate, give it a try. Whether you meditate for 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or 2 hours, this is a surefire way to reduce mental stress.

      Meditation has been scientifically proven to relax your body (resulting in less mental stress), while also reducing anxiety and high blood pressure.

      3. Easy on the Caffeine

      Yes, we know, we know—everyone loves a nice java buzz, and that’s okay, but there’s a fine line between a small caffeine pick-me-up and a racing heart and mind that throws you into a frenzy of mental stress.

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      Try giving up caffeine for a while and see how you feel. And, if that’s completely out of the question for you, at least try to minimize it. You might find that lots of your mental stress mysteriously “disappears” as your caffeine intake goes down.

      4. Attack Mental Stress Via the Back Door

      That’s right: your body and mind are part of the whole being, and are constantly influencing and affecting each other. If you’re experiencing a lot of mental stress, try to reduce it by calming your body down—a calm body equals a calmer mind.

      How do you calm your body down and reduce physical stress? A  great way to reduce physical stress (thereby reducing mental stress) is to take natural supplements that are proven to reduce stress and anxiety while lifting your mood. Three good ones to look into are kava-kava, St John’s wort, and rhodiola rosea:

      • Kava-kava is a natural plant known to have mild sedative properties, and you should be able to find it at your natural health food store or vitamin store. It’s available in capsules or liquid extract form.
      • St John’s wort is a natural flower used to treat depression. Again, it’s found at your local health store in capsules or liquid. Because it uplifts mood (enabling you to see the brighter side of all experiences) it helps relieve mental stress as well.
      • Rhodiola rosea is a natural plant shown to reduce stress and uplift mood, and Russian athletes have been using it forever. Like the other two supplements mentioned, rhodiola rosea can be found at your natural health store in capsule or liquid form.

      While these supplements are all natural and can be very helpful for most people, always check with your health care provider first as they can cause side-effects depending on your current health situation etc.

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      5. Good Old-Fashioned Exercise

      This tip has been around forever because it works. Nothing relieves mental stress like running, kickboxing—you name it. Anything super-physical will wipe out most of your mental stresses once the exercise endorphins (happy chemicals) are released into your brain.

      The result: mental stress will be gone!

      So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or just plain stressed, try using some of the above tips. You can even print this out or save it to refer to regularly.

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      Featured photo credit: Radu Florin via unsplash.com

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