We know that stress isn’t good for us – I mean how many times have you heard someone say “don’t stress, it’s bad for your health,” yet in the modern world avoiding stress seems near impossible. What is happening on a biochemical level when we are stressed is truly fascinating. Historically, long-term stress typically revolved around food being scarce. Long-term stress came in the form of floods, famines and wars. During such times, we didn’t know where the next meal was coming from.
Today, in the Western world, our long-term stresses are more likely to be financial stress, relationship concerns and uncertainty, or even worries, about our health, or the health of a loved one, but also body weight. For so many people, their first waking thoughts involve, “What will I or won’t I eat today?” or “How much exercise can I get done today?”
It is important to understand how cortisol works, as it can be your friend or one of your worst nightmares!
1. Cortisol is influenced by our thoughts/behaviour
For some, the thoughts might flow like this: “Oh, my goodness, it’s Wednesday, and I still haven’t been to the gym, and, my gosh, it’s 7pm and there’s no food at home, which means I still have to go grocery shopping, and that means I won’t get home until 8.30pm and then I have to cook and clean up and then it will be midnight before I get to bed and I have to get up at a good time to get to work early in the morning, but I’m going to a party in three weeks and I really wanted to fit into my favourite red dress and that’s not going to happen because I haven’t been to the gym all week and I am still not going to go tonight because otherwise I won’t get any sleep and get to work on time to do everything I have to do …” And on and on and on it goes. Phew! So many people live like this most days of their life, whether they reveal it in how they live or simply think it. When it happens day after day it can easily lead to a chronic pattern of stress response, hence increased cortisol output, which in turn can lead to a change in your metabolism.
2. Cortisol is catabolic
Cortisol is catabolic, meaning that it breaks proteins down into its building blocks, known as amino acids. Your muscles are made from proteins, and cortisol signals them to break down, as the body’s perception is that fuel is needed. Additional amino acids are also needed in the blood to help repair tissues (even though you may be simply sitting in front of the TV, with your financial or relationship concerns mulling around your head!). The amino acids released as a result of the catabolic signaling of cortisol can be converted, through a process called “gluconeogenesis,” back into glucose (sugar), which your body thinks may be useful to assist you in your stress. Yet if you’re not active, this increase in blood glucose will not be utilized, and insulin will have to be secreted to return blood glucose levels to normal by returning the glucose in the blood to storage. Remember that glucose is stored as glycogen in the muscles and the liver.
But over time, the catabolic signaling of cortisol itself may first challenges cortisol presents is that the evening level of the hormone starts to spike again rather than continuing to decrease. At this stage, you still make optimum levels in the morning and are able to bounce out of bed and get on with your day with reasonable energy, but evening levels are creeping up. This is one mechanism through which good sleeping patterns can be challenged.
3. Elevated cortisol increases our risk for disease
When cortisol levels become elevated above optimal, other changes in body chemistry begin to unfold. It has been suggested that elevated cortisol is a common thread behind what we have come to describe as metabolic syndrome; that is elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and insulin resistance, the latter condition being a warning sign that if nothing changes in the near future, Type 2 diabetes is a likely consequence.
4. Cortisol can slow our metabolism
If we remember that we are completely geared for survival and that cortisol tells every cell of the body that food is scarce, another of its roles is to slow down your metabolic rate. A slower metabolism leads you to burn body fat for energy far more slowly then you have in the past, as cortisol is designed to make sure that you survive this perceived period of famine.
5. Cortisol can play havoc with your digestion
Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), causing all of the physiological responses previously described. Subsequently, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) must be suppressed, as the two systems don’t operate simultaneously. The PNS is stimulated when the length of the exhalation extends. Known also as the ‘rest, digest and repair’ arm of the nervous system, when the PNS is activated it allows the body to prioritise digestion and nourishment. On the contrary, imagine what goes on in a cortisol-flooded, stressed-out body when food is consumed: digestion and absorption are compromised, and more frequently indigestion can develop.
So what to do?
Managing stress involves different strategies for many of us. However, common threads include a reduction in caffeine consumption (caffeine drives adrenaline production our short-term stress hormone), incorporating a breath-focused practice such as yoga, meditation, tai chi or Pilates, as diaphragmatic breathing activates the calming, PNS arm of the nervous system. Breathing in this way lowers stress hormones efficiently. Cook a nourishing meal, write in a gratitude journal or simply taking yourself for a walk in nature can also be incredibly helpful. Please remember that life is precious, that you are precious and to treat yourself accordingly.
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