Managing stress and reducing cortisol levels

There’s no way around it, stress is something that we all face each and every day, as life is filled with challenges, setbacks and feelings that push us to the edge mentally, physically and emotionally.

The reality is the connection between our mind and body is far more significant than we realise and we seem to have a complete disregard for the consequences of our actions, as stress is an aspect of our health that is far too often overlooked. It often takes control of who we are and how we behave, which is why from a health perspective it’s absolutely essential that we give stress management the focus and attention it deserves.

Why is this such an issue?

By continually burning the candle at both ends, it’s easy for stress to force us into a rut, as we feel overwhelmed to the point where we have no energy, can’t sleep, lack focus, become depressed, gain weight, feel anxious and simply can’t cope with trying to deal with the ups and downs of everyday life.

Not only that, but stress raises our risks of and is a huge contributor towards the development of everything from cancer to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and a whole host of other health related issues.

These chronic diseases are often brought on by poor dietary and lifestyle choices, with studies suggesting that roughly 20 percent of people who lose their lives every year die from these illnesses.

Just let that sink in for a moment.

That’s one in five deaths every year that could have possibly been prevented!

So it really is an understatement to say that this has become a life or death situation.

While I know telling you to reduce stress is useless advice, as if it were that simple you’d be doing it already, the good news is there are actions you can take that will massively aid in your ability to manage your stress levels.

But before we get to that, it’s important to firstly look at how and why your body responds the way that it does.

The overlooked influence of hormones

Your body has miraculous healing abilities and its self-repair mechanism can do everything from kill cancer cells to fight infection and slow down how quickly you age. But it’s only able to do so when the nervous system is functioning properly and not hindered as it is in times of perceived danger, with the body’s response during these times being to release the hormones cortisol and epinephrine.

Cortisol is the body’s way of reacting to situations where it deems itself as under attack, as a response mechanism to deal with the perceived threat. Epinephrine on the other hand is more commonly referred to as adrenaline, and its release can be brought on by strong emotions such as anger or fear.

It’s often underestimated just how much of an influence these hormones can actually have when elevated levels are released or remain in the bloodstream, as during times of heightened discomfort our body enters what’s often referred to as ‘fight or flight mode’. While in this mode, the bloodstream is flooded with glucose to act as an immediate energy source and insulin production is inhibited to prevent this glucose from being stored, favouring it instead for immediate use.

While cortisol narrows the arteries, epinephrine increases the heart rate, forcing blood to pump harder and faster. At this time, functions deemed non-essential or detrimental to these circumstances are stopped or slowed down, suppressing everything from the digestive, to growth, immune and reproductive systems until the threat has passed and hormonal levels return to normal.

In small doses there’s nothing harmful about these responses, and in fact, during some activities such as exercise, they can actually be beneficial in short-term bursts.

However, problems begin when the body is persistently placed in this state, which unfortunately, is often the reality of the fast-paced, high pressure and stressful lifestyle so many people find themselves in every day.

This really is a vicious circle, as stress and a negative outlook can be linked to causing the release of cortisol, as well as actually being one of the side effects of elevated levels due to how it suppresses production of the feel good hormone serotonin. This can lead to feelings of depression, along with panic, anxiety, paranoia, excessive worrying and even fear.

To put this into perspective

Take a moment to think about a time when you were in the build-up to a high-pressure event, such as waiting to go into an exam, a job interview, presentation or an important meeting.

Remember how anxious and nervous you were? Your heart no doubt racing, stomach tightening, as you began to doubt yourself and wonder have you done enough preparation? Are you good enough? Are you going to make a fool of yourself? Is this the moment everything falls apart? Unable to think straight, panicking as nerves slowly start to get the better of you, longing for it just to be over as your mind starts focusing on worst case scenarios and what could go wrong.

There’s no denying these events put a huge strain on your body, but now imagine doing that to yourself each and every day.

Sounds horrible doesn’t it?

Well that’s exactly what people are doing everyday without even realising it, by letting chronic stress and a negative mindset gain a foothold in their life, which is a huge trigger for the release of cortisol.

A real world example

There was a time when I was really stressed with everything from work to general life, on a highly restrictive diet, in a calorie deficit and training really hard in the gym trying to lose weight. I remember feeling under constant pressure, like I was trapped and sinking, with no way out in sight.

Everyday was a constant struggle just to get by, with the consequences of all these issues causing my cortisol levels to go through the roof, as my health continued to spiral out of control. Not only did I get severe insomnia where I struggled to sleep, I was also moody, exhausted, had no energy, constantly negative and had a substantial drop in testosterone. My weight gain stalled, work outs suffered, and every aspect of my life in one way or another was affected.

There’s no denying that my decisions and lifestyle placed a huge strain on my body and it reacted accordingly, and it’s only now looking back that I realise the huge and adverse effect it had on my wellbeing.

At the time I was almost blinded to the fact that it was happening, as I was so mentally, physically and emotionally drained, that I was just trying to get through the day. My relationships with my family were strained, I was struggling with work, neglecting responsibilities and what little rest I did get involved hours of lying in bed trying to fall asleep, followed by waking up pretty much every hour throughout the night.

It’s fair to say I wasn’t in a good place and as you can see it’s an understatement to say that failure to find balance in an all-or-nothing approach had a huge influence on my health, mindset and outlook.

I wasn’t alone in feeling this way either, as it’s a constant state so many people find themselves in, completely unaware of what they’re facing, or the extent in which it’s truly influencing their behaviour. Thereby making them feel trapped and helpless, unlikely to find a way out.

What can be done about it?

If you recognise you’re suffering from any of these symptoms or living in similar conditions from what you’ve read so far, then it’s highly likely your cortisol levels are elevated and the only way you’ll take back your health is to actively focus on decreasing them.

The actions required to lower your cortisol levels and manage stress are in many ways the same or directly related, but I’m not going to lie, getting this under control can and will take time, requiring a large amount of consistency, focus and dedication.

Personally, it took me several months to get back on track, but with some lifestyle changes it is possible to get them to return to normal, or at least substantially improve the influence they have.

In order to decrease your levels, you need to recognise the factors that contribute towards them becoming elevated in the first place, and the easiest way to do so is to find ways to implement the changes listed below.

These changes include:

  • Adapting to a diet based largely on whole foods with a low glycaemic load
  • Eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans and seeds to increase your intake of fibre, antioxidants and phytonutrients (nutrients found in certain plants beneficial towards health)
  • Making sure you meet your required intake levels for Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Finding ways to be less sedentary and become more active
  • If you’re over training/exercising too much, look to give your body a break to properly recover
  • Aim to get six to eight hours sleep a night
  • Ensure you find ways to relax and clear your mind
  • Reduce your consumption of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and processed foods

These are all factors I focused on in my book ‘Become a Better You‘.

With that being said though, whether you have elevated cortisol levels or not, these are all factors everyone should be taking into consideration when trying to improve their health.

Final thoughts

With the ever-growing rates of chronic diseases, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that more and more people are reaching the stage where illnesses are simply a side effect caused by prioritising everything else above their wellbeing.

You often hear of people landing up in hospital with life-changing illnesses, saying they wish they’d done it all differently. Wishing they hadn’t worked so many hours, made more time for their family and friends, took that long overdue trip, or simply appreciated what life has to offer. Praying that if given the opportunity they’ll completely change who they are and start showing appreciation for what they have.

The reality is there will never be a right time to focus on your wellbeing, which is why you need to actively decide that it’s something you are going to do. Because at the end of the day, without your health, what do you truly have?

A balanced healthy lifestyle begins when you start taking responsibility for your own health. You need to realise it’s ok to say no at times and that occasionally, you need to take a step back, relax and take charge to prioritise your health, as no one else is going to do it for you.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts, questions and other ways you’ve found to lose weight below.

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