Cortisol is a hormone that plays a vital role in the human body. Produced by your adrenal glands, it regulates metabolism, reduces inflammation, assists with memory formulation, and manages stress. When you are in a dangerous or frightening situation the body releases more to prepare you to deal with or avoid the situation. Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies don’t return to normal, and we are in a state of constant stress.
This stress can be very debilitating causing a long list of chronic ailments. Disrupted sleep, anxiety, muscle weakness, impaired memory, frequent colds and irritable bowel syndrome are just a few symptoms of chronic stress. Overproduction of cortisol can interfere with other hormone processes in the body—like metabolism, immunity, and reproductive systems—and end up contributing to more serious health consequences. Loss of libido and irregular or missed periods can be caused by high cortisol levels interrupting proper hormone production. Mental health issues can also be a serious complication caused by high cortisol levels. Anxiety and depression can lead to dependence on drugs and alcohol to cope.
But there are ways to decrease your stress and cortisol levels. Here are a few:
Sufficient rest. Try to get some sleep! At least one third of adults don’t get enough. Sleep deprivation decreases our ability to regulate and manage stress.
Regular exercise. Breaking a sweat is a stress buster. You need 30 minutes of moderately intense activity most days. A brisk walk is good, as is dancing or yoga. It helps with sleep and releases endorphins.
Meditative practices. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can lower cortisol levels. Yoga and tai chi divert stress to relaxation and can lower your blood pressure.
Learning your stressors. Be aware when you are having a stress response not related to immediate danger. It’s difficult for your body to distinguish between a real threat or long-term stress from a job loss.
Hobbies. Try to find a hobby that can distract you in a healthy way. Artistic activities in particular are highly therapeutic for stress management. Drawing, dancing, and playing an instrument can promote positive feelings and reduce cortisol levels.
Community. Strong social connections are crucial for stress reduction. Set healthy boundaries for mental well-being. You have the power to choose those you surround ourselves with!
If needed, see a doctor. When stress starts to affect your relationships, health, and overall quality of life, a doctor can provide actionable solutions.
Stress is a normal biological response and a part of life, so it shouldn’t alarm you to experience it on occasion. However, let’s make sure we keep our stress under control and in its place.
Kathleen Weaver-Zech and Dean’s Team Chicago