When acute stress becomes more long term and its potential impact on the body is more substantial, the term chronic stress is used. The on-going stress response causes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain to activate along highly specific pathways.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the HPA axis) refers to a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions between the tissues within the brain (hypothalamus, pituitary gland) and the adrenal. It is the mechanism for a set of interactions among glands, hormones and parts of the mid-brain that mediate a general adaptation syndrome. The HPA systems trigger the production and release of steroid hormones including the primary stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland and is involved in the neurobiology of mood disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, clinical depression, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome to name but a few.
Cortisol- in small amounts- is an essential hormone. In small amounts it offers positive effects such as quick bursts of energy, greater memory function, short term increased immunity, lower sensitivity to pain and it helps maintain homeostasis in the body alongside the HPA axis. It’s very important in monitoring the systems throughout the body (heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune systems, skin etc) in our everyday activities that deal immediately with the stressor. It’s one of the hormones associated with waking and sleeping and its levels naturally fluctuate during the day being at its highest in the morning and lowest at night. It’s the highest levels of cortisol in the morning that help the body wake up at the start of the day.
While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response is activated after the removal (or perceived removal) of the stress (or stressor) so the body’s functions can return to normal. If the body’s stress response is activated so often and doesn’t return to normal, excessive levels of cortisol induce a reverse of its characteristics.
Excessive levels of cortisol changes its characteristics from one of anabolism (building) to one of more catabolism (breaking down) thereby producing negative responses opposed to positive. Physiologically these include:
- Impaired cognitive performance
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- High blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body
- Increased abdominal fat, associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased abdominal fat include heart attacks, strokes, high levels of LDL cholesterol and lower levels of HDL.
Controlling Cortisol Levels
To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. By having the body relax, making lifestyle changes and the cessation of causal factors in order to keep the body from reacting to stress, the following have been found by many to be helpful in relaxing the body and mind:
- Diet: Make sure you are supplying your body with all the essential nutrients you need to prevent deficiencies and for optimal function. This includes plenty of high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals.
- Avoid overtraining: Try not to work out three or more days in a row without taking a day off. Keep workouts to under an hour at the most and train efficiently and intensely. Take enough rest days between workouts.
- Relax: Take an evening walk with a loved one or take a nap when you get a chance.
- Sleep: Sleep is crucial to the recovery and recuperation process. Aim for 8 hours a night.
- Spike Insulin levels after exercise: Insulin interferes with cortisol and may enhance cortisol clearance from the body. Spiking insulin levels after a workout might help minimize excessive cortisol levels since cortisol levels are elevated significantly post resistance training.
- Deep breathing: Breathing can be done anytime, anywhere. Deep breathing provides extra oxygen to the blood and causes the body to release endorphins, which are naturally occurring hormones that re-energize and promote relaxation.
- Progressive relaxation: This is a technique to help relax tense muscles.
- Stretching exercises: If done correctly, stretching can promote relaxation and reduce stress.
- Low Level Exercise: Going for a walk can clear your mind, reduce tension and increase energy. Exercise can help by providing a needed escape and it may increase the brain's production of endorphins (naturally occurring chemicals that relax and re-energize you).
- Meditation: Meditation helps settle the mind so you can think calmly throughout the day. The goal is not for immediate relaxation but to increase serenity. Meditation puts an individual in control of their thoughts by forcing on the present, in the moment and to observe thought processes.