What do you know about cortisol? Maybe you know it by its nickname, “the Stress Hormone.” Like most things, it does a healthy job when it’s present in the right circumstances and at the right levels, but it can be a major issue when that balance falls apart.
The nickname cortisol has comes from its job of helping us adapt in “fight-or-flight” situations. That is, when you’re feeling stress, cortisol production increases to help you. Says Lisa Sefcik for Livestrong.com: “The benefits of cortisol include blood pressure management, reduced inflammation and a stronger immune system. This stress-fighting hormone converts protein into fuel when you’re under physical or psychological stress evoked by traumatic events, according to Columbia University’s Health System. Once your brain no longer perceives a situation as threatening, your cortisol levels return to normal.”
In that context, cortisol is doing what its meant to do, being our friend. Today, though, there’s an epidemic of stress that triggers cortisol production at higher-than-normal levels for longer-than-normal periods, and you can probably see the effects in your own life or in the people around you.
One of the ways over-producing cortisol works against us is it contributes to craving “comfort” foods—fatty, sugary foods. “’More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat,’ says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist.” (via webmd.com)
Christopher Bergland says on Psychology Today’s site: “Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy… elevated cortisol levels (are also) a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.” Wow.
If you haven’t made the connection yet, I’m not on my way to endorsing any of the sketchy “cortisol blockers” you might have seen advertised. No way. Learning healthy ways to manage stress, though, is a great way to help maintain healthy cortisol levels and keep it in the friend zone. Here are three simple things you can do towards that end:
- Exercise. Surprised that this is where I started? If so, you must be new here. Exercise is a great stress reliever, and if you’re doing some every day you’ll reap its benefits every day. That said, intense exercise (HIIT, Crossfit, etc) should be avoided when you’re stressed, so opt for lighter cardio or yoga/Pilates instead.
- Find and practice calming techniques. Whether you seek out breathing exercises to calm you, take up yoga or meditation, lose yourself in prayer or your spiritual practices, start seeing a therapist, or whatever works for you, having something you can turn to in times of stress will help you manage it (and cortisol production) in a healthy way.
- Go outside. “’Nature can be beneficial for mental health,’ says Irina Wen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Steven A. Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center. ‘It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety.’” (via NBC News)
Bonus tip: Make sure you have healthy snacks on hand around the house and at work so that if all else fails and you go for comfort foods, you’re at least choosing healthy ones.
Another bonus tip: Getting enough sleep is a great way to manage stress on an ongoing basis.
In closing, don’t believe the hype that cortisol is your enemy. It’s meant to be your friend. If you’re taking care of yourself, the balance should stay in place to keep it that way.