It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with work-related, emotional, or physical stress — stress takes a major toll on the body. We’re all dealing with stress in our lives, but how exactly does it affect our health? There’s a direct relationship between stress and cortisol production. Dr. Tracy Tranchitella spoke to the Stark team about the impact of stress on your body.
3 Ways to Reduce Cortisol
“It’s a cortisol response — often referred to as the flight or fight response. This system is a very primitive one. Use the caveman analogy- when you’re running away from a sabretooth tiger that’s trying to eat you, you need that burst of energy and mobilization of resources to respond to that stress. Today’s stressors are very different— but that physiological fight or flight response is still the same.”
When you encounter a stressor, your nervous system will respond by triggering the release of hormones that then stimulate the release of cortisol into your system, and mobilize all of those resources for energy. If you don’t have a recovery period, the system can’t reset itself, which can potentially lead to a breakdown of your bones and tissue. Eventually, chronic stress can affect your sleep cycle, sex hormones, insulin insensitivity, and body composition by redistributing body fat into the system. So how do you prevent cortisol from getting in the way of your health goals?
We all know it is important, and yet, how many times have you stayed up late to keep working, packed every minute of the weekend with chores and errands, or forced yourself to go out and “be social” when all you want is to relax at home after an exhausting week?
Essentially, the body doesn’t differentiate between the causes of your stress, so your body responds to different stressors in the same way. Chronic stress negatively impacts the body because those stressors are ongoing, but the body can’t regenerate or lower those cortisol levels without a recovery period.
Cortisol stays elevated because the body is constantly in “go mode” and driving that stress response — it’s like having your foot on the gas and never taking it off. Even things as simple as “unplugging” from work for a night or eating lunch outside away from your computer can help your body start lower your cortisol levels. It’s worth noting that resting will help initially, but rest alone may not be enough to tackle the real issues causing chronic stress.
2. Test (And Optimize) Your Hormones
Stress impacts your hormones and cortisol levels in substantial ways. In a long-term scenario, elevated cortisol can even lead to metabolic syndrome or other major hormonal imbalances. For women, these hormone imbalances manifest predominantly as PMS or low progesterone for women, and as belly fat and hypertension for men. This then becomes a chicken and egg situation, where cortisol throws off your hormones, imbalanced hormones then throw off other systems, adding more physiological stress and increasing cortisol.
Optimizing your hormones can help reduce inflammation and other physiological stressors contributing to cortisol production that are often left unchecked. If you believe you might be suffering from chronically elevated cortisol, the best way to get to the root of the issue is to consult with a doctor about getting the right testing done.
3. Manage Your Lifestyle
Many factors can contribute to chronically elevated cortisol, and lifestyle factors are a part of that. If you’re struggling with psychological or emotional stress, therapy may be able to help you talk through your problems. Practicing breathwork and meditation can also reduce cortisol levels, and are something simple you can practice anywhere, at any time.
When it comes to nutrition, taking steps like reducing caffeine intake, eliminating food sensitivities, or supplementing key nutrients your diet is missing can all lower cortisol levels. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule also aids recovery as well.
Dr. Tranchitella says, “It’s all tied together. It’s not just addressing cortisol issues. It’s addressing diet, lifestyle, perceptions of stress, and dealing with chronic inflammation.” Don’t feel like you need to change your whole life at once (and put more stress on yourself)! Even just addressing one issue at a time can lead to less stress and lower cortisol levels, or if you’re struggling to identify where you need help, know that the team at Stark is always happy to help!