Cortisol is a powerful hormone produced in the adrenal glands positioned on top of the kidneys. Known as the “stress hormone,” its primary role is to mobilize your body’s nutritional resources in stressful situations. In conjunction with the release of epinephrine, cortisol serves as part of the “fight or flight” response where its role is to mobilize stored carbohydrates, catabolize proteins into glucose and mobilize stored fats.
These nutrients, in turn, are used to allow the body to deal with the stressor, whether it is an important meeting or a saber-tooth tiger. Therefore, in short bursts, elevated cortisol is good because it elevates blood sugar levels to improve brain function and to prepare the body for action.
However, cortisol loses its beneficial effects when there is a prolonged cortisol response in the bloodstream, caused by regular and consistently elevated levels of stress – whether mental, emotional or physical – in the body. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol have a number of undesirable effects, including:
- Elevated cortisol levels lead to a perpetual catabolic state in the body, where muscle is broken down and fat is stored, leading to undesired weight gain and loss of lean muscle mass.
- Elevated cortisol levels cause a depression of the immune system, making the body more susceptible to injury and, when illness strikes, delaying full recovery.
While elevated cortisol levels cannot always be prevented, especially during times of heightened stress (such as the holidays, important upcoming business meetings or presentations), steps can be taken to minimize the amount of the powerful hormone in the bloodstream:
- To the extent possible, get as much high-quality sleep as is available on a nightly basis. Scientific research has shown that when an individual gets less than six hours of sleep for three consecutive nights, the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream triples. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night when life’s stressors are high.
- When adequate sleep is not possible due to a busy schedule or excessive travel, incorporate at least one 30-minute period of “downtime,” preferably in a dark place, during the day. Taking a nap is ideal; however, the emphasis should not be on sleeping, but rather on clearing the mind of any thought and simply relaxing.
- Control stress levels during busy times through the use of “To Do” lists. When leaving work, jot down a series of chores that need to be accomplished upon arrival the next day. Before going to bed, take 5 minutes to write down outstanding tasks so that the mind can then be turned off, thereby improving the quality of sleep.
- Incorporate regular, high-frequency, low-calorie “mini meals” every two hours to keep levels of glucose in the bloodstream more consistent, thereby preventing the body from catabolizing its lean muscle tissue. These “mini meals” should be approximately 250-400 calories, should contain a small amount of protein along with a high-quality carbohydrate source (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains), and should replace the standard breakfast, lunch and dinner of a normal day.
Stress is not always a bad thing; in fact, it is an essential part of an exciting and productive life. But when stress becomes so all-encompassing as to be a chronic part of your day, incorporate some of the steps above to minimize your cortisol response and maintain your health.