There’s a lot of buzz about Cortisol, but not everyone knows what it is and what it does. Here’s a quick debrief:
Hooked On A Feeling
We tend to think about stress as just a feeling; the feeling of being overwhelmed by external forces or by emotion.
There are many stresses in our day-to-day lives, from work, to relationships and even our own selves. But is stress really just a feeling that comes and goes?
The answer is no – stress has a very real manifestation in the body and subsequently does have effects if not handled properly. Let’s take a look at stress: what is it meant to do, how does it affect us, and how we can curb some of the more negative aspects of this force?
The Good, The Bad and The Healthy
First thing to note is that stress is not inherently a bad thing. For this we are going to use the analogy of weight – imagine that there is a large weight applying force down upon you.
The first kind of stress is distress, which is what we commonly think of when it comes to stress, and this is the maladaptive version. This is where we cannot handle the weight bearing down, and we are flattened into the floor.
The second kind is eustress, and in this instance the same weight is present, but instead of falling flat, you adapt, grow stronger and lift the weight.
Fight It or Flight It
So what is the mechanism behind stress? Well, the answer is cortisol.
Cortisol triggers our “fight or flight” response, and it is designed to keep us alive.
In times of stress – aka an encounter with a Grizzly – cortisol injects glucose into the muscles for energy, increases heart rate to get blood to the vital organs, and speeds up neural transmissions to heighten our awareness.
All this engages in order to either fight the Grizzly or flee from it. (I would suggest the latter, especially if you’re with a slower friend.)
A Day In The Life Of Cortisol
Now how does this work? Like most hormones, cortisol runs on a cycle. On a regular cycle, cortisol is high in the morning when you first wake (introduced to all the stresses of being back to consciousness).
As this initial stress subsides, cortisol should tapper down, with a small spike around midday – when sugar floods your system at lunch. Lastly, there is a further decrease as we wind down our day.
The issue arises when the stress does not go away and cortisol doesn’t have a chance to decrease. Your adrenal glands regulate the release of cortisol, and if the stressor does not go away, your body will continue to produce cortisol in order to preserve that fight or flight instinct.
This becomes dangerous because cortisol has some negative effects, including fat storage, muscle weakness and slow healing.
Moreover, cortisol cannot be produced indefinitely. Once exhausted, your adrenal glands go into what is called adrenal fatigue, where the production of cortisol slows or stops altogether.
No cortisol means no “fight or flight” response, leading to slow reaction, cloudiness in thought and judgment, and has links to depression.
With all this in mind, how do we maintain an even-keel when it comes to stress? Well, here are a couple tips to decrease stress and keep cortisol balanced:
Sleep: Sleep and cortisol go hand in hand. Cortisol decreases melatonin, which helps with sleep. However, the reverse is also true, whereby getting more sleep will decrease cortisol levels.
Pro Tip: Don’t use an alarm –The shock of an alarm is a stressor to the body and this spikes cortisol right as you wake up.
Exercise: Movement in almost any form will release endorphins, which are body’s natural painkillers and decrease levels of stress.
Pro Tip: Weight training or HIIT training will also help you sleep better.
Documentation: Write down all the things (people, situations) that may cause you stress. Rank them from 1-10 to indicate the level of stress, and then decide what can go.
Pro Tip: If it doesn’t add value, then it may not be worth your time and attention.
If you need help finding that exercise, in order to better control your cortisol and your stress, do a quick search on the FitIn Events page to get inspired!
Jermel Pierre is a graduate of both an Honours Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology and a Master’s Degree in Health Sciences. He has spent the last decade in clinical research and development, with a focus on how to improve wellbeing on a physical AND mental level. Jermel is a regular contributor to the FitIn Blog.