Like most things in life, the human body requires balance in order to function optimally. A common factor that disrupts this balance is stress. Although necessary for our ability to respond to danger and maintain alertness, stress in excessive amounts can affect the supply and demand of hormones in the body and result in various health concerns. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is released to induce a “fight or flight” response during times of acute stress. In a healthy individual, cortisol should rise in the morning and slowly decline throughout the evening in preparation for bedtime. But what happens when stress becomes the norm?
With continuous daily stress, the body remains in a heightened sympathetic state resulting in chronically elevated levels of cortisol, or a dysfunctional daily cortisol rhythm, with low levels in the morning and elevated levels at night. This illustrates how chronic stress can lead to insomnia and waking up feeling unrefreshed every morning.
If this change in cortisol secretion is sustained for a prolonged period of time, there are many potential health consequences. Because cortisol triggers the release of glucose, chronically elevated cortisol is associated with an increased risk of diabetes. In addition, when the body is producing large amounts cortisol, it ends up “stealing” from other hormone pathways, leading to a decrease in the availability of other important hormones such as the sex hormones.
Because stress and chronically elevated cortisol can negatively affect multiple organ systems, it is essential to work on reducing stress levels, and allowing the body to reach a parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) mode. Below are a few ways to reduce stress (and cortisol) for the maintenance of a calm and balanced internal state:
- Make a bedtime routine to allow for a restful sleep. This includes avoiding blue light (TV, laptop, phones) 30 minutes before bed, taking a warm shower, listening to light music, or using guided meditation apps to fall asleep.
- Deep belly breathing before bed and meals to activate the vagus nerve responsible for the more relaxed parasympathetic state
- An important aspect in preventing stress is time management. Instead of writing a to-do list, set goals and divide tasks throughout the week. This will help you to prioritize the most important or most imminent deadlines so that you can use your time more efficiently.
- Say NO! Don’t drag yourself to a party when you don’t feel like going, or overwhelm yourself by completing too much in one day. Saying no to a request or task is acknowledging and respecting your body’s requirements for rest, both physically and mentally. Invest your time where you need it the most.
- Engage in physical activity. Exercising releases endorphins, which improve mood and decrease stress. Avoid stimulating drinks (e.g. coffee, black tea) in agitated states and in the evening.
- Self-appreciation: often times, we feel worthless in high states of stress, wishing we achieved more or harshly judging our own performance. Record the things that you achieve or do well and put them into an “accomplishment jar”. When you feel stressed, read all the notes in the jar to remind yourself of your strengths!