A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog called The Hidden Dangers: 5 Ways Being Busy Is Causing You Harm.
Within this blog, there was a particular name that kept coming up time and time again as the culprit behind the negative effects of stress.
That perpetrator is cortisol, otherwise known as the “stress hormone”.
According to the Institute For Functional Medicine, “75 to 90 per cent of human disease is related to stress and inflammation.” Conditions such as heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, IBS, and high blood pressure are all linked to inflammation as a result of stress.
In this blog, we’ll be looking further into what this “stress hormone” is and how it affects inflammation in the body. Using this knowledge, we’ll explore five ways we can reduce our inflammation, balance our cortisol levels, and improve our overall health and wellbeing.
What is cortisol?
When faced with a stress response, our Autonomic Nervous System is triggered to release adrenaline. If the stress continues, the adrenal glands go on to release cortisol.
Cortisol is also known as a steroid hormone, and, when everything is working as it should, its function is to regulate our body’s response to stress. It does this in several ways:
- Regulating blood pressure
- Helping to control our sleep-wake cycle
- Balancing blood sugar (glucose) levels
- Aiding in the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates
- Reducing inflammation
The relationship between cortisol and inflammation
It’s important to point out that cortisol isn’t just released in response to a stressor. In fact, our levels of cortisol are constantly fluctuating throughout the day, tending to be highest in the morning when we wake up and decreasing from this point. When our levels are healthy and balanced, cortisol is essential in controlling inflammation. Healthy levels of inflammation are the body’s way of repairing itself.
When we are extremely stressed, however, we release extra cortisol. Since almost every cell in the body contains receptors for cortisol, it’s safe to say it has a large scope of influence. Subsequently, cortisol is essential for maintaining homeostasis, which just means the way our body self-regulates and maintains internal stability.
One thing that is affected by this disruption is our immune system, which becomes suppressed. This means our body produces less white blood cells to fight infection, disrupting the delicate balance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes within the body. As a result, we are at an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, IBS, and high blood pressure.
How to balance cortisol levels and reduce inflammation
1. Anti-inflammatory diet
If we can naturally decrease inflammation in the body, a reduction in cortisol levels should follow. We can do this by avoiding unhealthy trans fats, refined sugars, processed foods and excess alcohol. This doesn’t mean we have to cut out all our favourite treats, but we should aim for meals rich in fresh, colourful vegetables, healthy fats, and lots of hydration.
2. Pay attention to your gut health
Hippocrates, hailed as the father of modern medicine, said, “All disease starts in the gut.” Whilst that’s since been proven to be not entirely true, research suggests that our gut is responsible for around 70 per cent of our immune system!
Our digestive system naturally contains billions of beneficial bacteria that help to keep things functioning as they should. As we’ve already explored, stress is adept at throwing things out of balance, and with regards to the gut, this can mean multiplying the number of harmful bacteria. To maintain our gut health, we can favour foods rich in live cultures and probiotics, such as kefir, yoghurt, kombucha, tempeh, and pickled vegetables.
According to DNA Fit: “Exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol. In general, the more your fitness improves the better the body becomes at dealing with physical stress. This means that less cortisol will be released during exercise and also in response to emotional or psychological stresses.” It doesn’t need to be high-intensity exercise – in fact, I recommend limiting the intensity until your cortisol levels have returned to normal. You might try a more gentle approach, like yoga, pilates, or even a walk in nature.
4. Self care
If you stay up to date with my blog, you’ll know that journalling, mental fitness, breathing exercises and mindfulness aren’t new topics around here. I’ve stated the benefits of them many times before, but with regards to regulating our hormone levels, practising self care is an effective way of triggering a “relax response” in the body.
You may not be familiar with the therapeutic properties of lavender, but it has been hailed as an effective relaxation remedy for centuries. It’s been proven to help with sleep difficulties, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and some studies have even demonstrated psychological benefits related to managing anxiety and depression. Placing a few drops of a lavender essential oil into a bowl of boiling water and leaning over the steam, or sleeping with the lavender flower wrapped in a cloth next to your bed are great ways of encouraging the body to relax naturally.
For more information on how you can reduce stress and return your cortisol levels to normal, I recommend this article from Healthline. If you’re interested in blogs about wellbeing as busy professionals, follow along on LinkedIn to be notified every time a new blog goes live.