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Keep Cortisol at Bay for Better Health

Christine Davis, Naturopathic Doctor

We all know that stress isn’t good for our bodies… so what can we do about it? Stress can come in many forms. Many of us think only of the psychological stress, caused by family, work, life events or persistent worrying. However, physical stress is just as real and just as dangerous for our bodies. Lack of exercise, poor diet, food allergies or even weather changes can be a physiological stressor for our bodies. In contrast, excessive exercise can also be a major stressor for our bodies.

So why is stress bad for us? Stress can impact a multitude of physiological reactions in our bodies. Symptoms of excessive stress can be; insomnia, fatigue, weight changes (especially an accumulation of fat around the abdomen), headache, respiration problems, heart irregularities, digestive disturbances (e.g., bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation), and psychological upsets (e.g. anger, irritability, rage, depression, anxiety). These stress responses can result in further complications. For example, stress can disrupt sleep, which can result in hormonal imbalances and will also trigger more stress. Many hormones are up-regulated during sleep, including growth hormone and melatonin. Growth hormone is an anabolic hormone that helps to build muscle and decrease fat mass.

Acute stress produces the hormone cortisol in the adrenal glands. Cortisol serves the body in non-stressful times and when called to respond to an acute crisis, however, it can cause damage when levels are high during chronic stress. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, in particular white blood cells, which is why it is used as an anti-inflammatory medication. Cortisol is also a catabolic steroid hormone, meaning it breaks things down (versus anabolic hormones, which are building hormones). It is known to break down collagen, bone and muscle. This can result in osteoporosis, joint pain and in severe cases, abdominal obesity and loss of muscle mass in the extremities.

How do we combat stress? There are many strategies to help cope with stress. Firstly, it is important to recognize what causes you stress and try to reduce or manage this stressor. If the stress is modifiable (e.g. time management), then take steps to manage this. For example, if your stress is caused by a busy lifestyle, make sure to create lists, assume tasks to reasonable expectation and to delegate whenever possible. Participating in relaxing activities, such as yoga, pilates, baths, singing, baking, laughing, and journaling can also help. Seek out care when necessary including massage, acupuncture or body-work. Take regular vacations, even media vacations from blackberries and e-mail can be helpful.

Another useful relaxation practice is deep breathing. Breathe in for a count of 7, and out for a count of 11. Breathe into your belly and expand you diaphragm, rather than your chest and shoulders. Repeat as often as needed- ideally 10-15 min 3 times per day.

There are also nutrients and supplements that can help. Magnesium supplementation can help to reduce cortisol after aerobic exercise. Omega-3 Fatty acids can help manage psychological stress. Vitamin C and B-vitamins dampen cortisol release in response to mental and physical stressors. Licorice (glycyrriza glabra) can help to build up the adrenals after chronic stress (don’t take this if you have high blood pressure). Herbs such as Ashwaganda and Rhodiola are known as adaptogens, meaning they can help you adapt to stress. L-Theanine supports normal brain alpha-wave activity, resulting in a calming effect to the sympathetic nervous system. It is always best to consult a medical professional when beginning a new supplement regime.

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