Who among us is not affected to some degree by periods of stress and anxiety? Major life events such as a divorce, job change or health issues can bring about a vicious cycle of stress and it’s long-term, detrimental effects. Simply the architecture of our daily lives can contribute to this cycle, and before we know it we’re experiencing not only sleepless nights, poor digestion and anxiety, but a lack of intimacy, joy and creativity, too.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone - known for the famous “fight-or-flight” reaction to stress. While stress rapidly increases cortisol levels, removing the stressor tends to bring those elevated levels back down to normal. For example: the holiday season for many people is stressful - there are high expectations around giving the perfect gift, cooking the perfect meal or having an influx of family time with individuals you don’t always get along with. But the holiday season has an end, and usually we are able to feel relief at this point because we know the stressor has passed. This is would be a “normal” stress response.
For many people, the holiday season is stacked on top of insomnia, chronic fatigue and daily stress, so the elevated cortisol levels never go down which is associated with the following conditions:
- increased appetite and food cravings
- mood swings (anger and irritability)
- impaired immune response
- increased body fat and decreased muscle mass
- increased anxiety and depression
What To Do About It:
1. Manage and Avoid Stressful Situations
Each person will need a different strategy for avoiding their own personal stressors, but backup plans are key to making them work. For example: if your daily commute in rush hour traffic causes you stress, you can choose to stay ahead of traffic and leave your house as early as possible in the morning & in the evening. If your first line strategy doesn’t go as planned, have a backup, such as listening to a favorite podcast which can keep you from stewing in the traffic jam and instead learn something new. Also, practicing saying “no” to additional commitments we know we can’t take on can improve our stress levels tremendously, as well as maintaining healthy boundaries.
2. Emphasize Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition and Supplements
For some, the very idea of incorporating relaxation techniques into their already hectic lives simply adds another source of stress. Instead of trying to control the stress, you can be proactive towards the lifestyle changes that will help ease your reaction and lower cortisol levels.
Sleep is one of the most effective ways to manage cortisol; as little as one to two nights of good, sound sleep may do more for you in controlling cortisol levels & reducing your risk for chronic disease than a lifetime of stress-management classes. Adults should be aiming for eight hours of restful sleep each night. Exercise returns cortisol to a normal range which will also bring caloric expenditure back to normal levels, reduce body-fat levels, preserve muscle mass, decrease appetite and increase energy levels.
We know that exercise leads to the production of dopamine and serotonin, both of which are “feel good” anti-anxiety and anti-depression chemicals produced in the brain. In fact, researchers have show that 30 minutes a day, three to four days a week can be as effective as prescription antidepressants in relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.
One of the most positive anti-stress decisions you can make in terms of your diet is to cut down your use of alcohol, caffeine or any other stimulants. Too much caffeine can send the nervous system from a state of heightened alertness into a state of nervousness and anxiety. As for what you should eat, try to maintain a balance of your macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fat, along with your micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Aim to make as many meals at home as you can, using whole ingredients like fruits and vegetables.
Supplements that are important for everyone whether you face low-level or high-level stress include: B-complex vitamins, Vitamin C and magnesium. If you are struggling with major, chronic stress the following would be recommended for daily use: magnolia, bark, epimedium, theanine, phytosterols, phosphatidylserine, though it's recommended you meet with an acupuncturist or herbalist before starting them.
The biggest take-away from this is to know that having an outlet for your stress can do wonders to lower your cortisol levels - even if you aren’t ready to make the lifestyle changes above. Some great examples are: dance, long walks or jogging, the outdoors, playing or listening to music, acupuncture or a supportive friendship or relationship.