Stress, Cortisol and How to Cope
Most of us know stress can be bad for us but we’re actually designed to function with some level of stress. The tricky part is getting the balance right, which is why we've asked nutritionist, yoga instructor and health enthusiast, Ninni Kjær to share her favourite, simple, lifestyle choices that you can make today to help better support your body to cope with stress.
WHAT DOES STRESS MEAN AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Stress, is such a buzz word, I feel like I am using it all the time! I hear myself saying; “It’s been such a stressful day”, “You are stressing me”, “I am just a bit stressed at the moment”, “are you stressed?” etc.
Now, that said, what is actually happening in our body when we are stressed? When can we call ourselves stressed? Is stress dangerous? What can we do about stress?
Continue reading to find the answers to these questions!
THE STRESS & THE CORTISOL
When I say stress, you say cortisol? Maybe not, but that is the relationship. Cortisol is the main stress hormone in our body. Cortisol is a steroid hormone (one of the glucocorticoids) that is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are endocrine glands that are located on top of the kidneys. They produce a variety of hormones, such as adrenaline, aldosterone and cortisol.
The level of cortisol in the blood is different during the day, normally highest in the morning and dropping throughout the day. This said, if you work nightshifts you can then manipulate the production to be highest in the evening/night and also in response to stress, extra cortisol is released.
Besides the adrenal glands, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are involved in regulating the cortisol levels. These two parts, located in the brain, sense/monitor the level of cortisol within your blood stream and adjust the hormone production as required. The hormone signals then inform the adrenal glands in order to increase or decrease the amount of cortisol released.
WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF CORTISOL?
Have you heard of ‘fight or flight’? Cortisol is best known as the fuel for this human instinct. It is the alarm system that is activated in a crisis, or when we think we are in a crisis, like anxiety. But there is more to it than that!
Almost every cell in the body contains a cortisol receptor. This means that there are many different effects of cortisol on the body, and the effects vary depending on which cells the cortisol acts upon.
These effects include: Regulation of the metabolism by managing how your body uses the different macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins); regulation of the blood pressure; influencing the memory formation; controlling the salt/water balance and the sleeping rhythms; keeping the inflammation down etc. But, during short and/or long-term stress, cortisol often works as a shut-down effect on all processes that get in the way, such as the digestive system, the immune system, or even growth.
WHAT DOES CORTISOL AND STRESS DO TO US?
Okay, so we know that stress increases the production of cortisol, but too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time is not a good idea! Symptoms of prolonged stress include: mood swings (becoming irritable, depressed or anxious), decreased sex-drive, irregular menstruation (women), weight gain (mainly face, chest and abdomen), high blood pressure, poor skin health, muscle weakness, osteoporosis and much more…
SUGGESTIONS ON HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS:
What a fancy word! Adaptogens is actually a term for non-toxic plants that help the body to adapt, adjust and recalibrate itself depending on our emotional and physical surroundings. They can be a great place to start if you are looking to support your body when it’s under stress.
But which ones to go for? My favourite one when it comes to releasing stress, is Ashwagandha root. Ashwagandha is a small woody plant with yellow flowers native to India and north Africa. It has been used for more than 3000 years in Ayurvedic medicine, one of the world's oldest healing systems originating in India. The root of the plant is especially well known for its stress-lowering benefits, by reducing cortisol levels in the body. Other adaptogens that can help the body to resist stressors are Astragalus root, Panax Ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea root, Liquorice root and Turmeric. All of these help in some way in coping with stress, with the added benefit of reducing anxiety, fatigue and/or depression.
STRESS RELEASING LIFESTYLE HABITS
Let’s face it, supplements on their own are not enough. But it’s a start! Stress is all around us. We need to take care of ourselves if we want to live an (almost) “stress-free-life”. There are so many suggestions on how to become the best version of you, here is a list of four of my top priorities:
Minimise the intake of processed foods (fast foods, deep fried stuff, baked goods), eat more veggies and cut down on the refined sugars!
With meditation, we practice turning off the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming response) regularly. In this way we train our body to recover quickly from stress
When you are active you increase the feel good hormones, endorphins, and you’ll get a break from your daily routine. Also, doesn’t it always feel great after a workout? I can’t think of a situation where I have regretted being active! You know that it’s good for you. Find something that interests you, it could be yoga, running, fitness, karate, or something else. Studies show that whatever shape you are in, you’ll still get the benefits of reducing your stress level, and improving your well-being as well as your overall health.
If you are already stressed it can be very difficult to sleep. This is because your body feels it is in danger and that there is no time to sleep. That means you often have trouble falling asleep, and if you do, it can be hard to stay asleep. The above examples to reduce stress are very important for you to get a better sleep. Yoga (yin yoga/yoga nidra), meditation and the use of essential oils with calming properties such as Lavender can be used as remedies to calm your body and then hopefully you’ll have a better night sleep.
No matter which stress state you are in, sleep is one of the most important things to prioritise in order to have a healthy life.
Just a few of the processes that are happening while you are sleeping: Your body is restored (Tissues damaged via normal daily work, workout and so on, are being healed.); hormones are released (Anti-aging hormones, growth hormones and melatonin, the sleeping hormone); your immune system gets rebooted; inflammation is reduced and last but not least; you are giving your gut a break! – so it can heal and recover from the work of food digestion.
When you sleep well you will feel better, have a more youthful hormonal profile, your immune function will be optimised and inflammation minimised.
Be good to yourself
The longest relationship you will ever have in your life is with yourself! You have heard it before, I know. But it’s so important to emphasize. Talk nicely to yourself. When you catch yourself thinking up some ugly self-talk, stop and ask; “Would I talk like this to my best friend?” And that answer is often no. Be good to yourself! It’s okay not to be able to manage everything. We are just humans and remember we are here to learn.
These are just a few of my recommendations for reducing stress. In the end it’s up to you to prioritise your health. Remember to walk before you run, start with small steps, things you know you can manage. Slowly it will become a habit, a habit to put your wellbeing first.
Ninni Kjær is a food and health enthusiast, nutritionist and yoga instructor, who graduated (cand.scient) in Food Innovation and Health from Copenhagen University in 2017. Visit www.https://ninnikjaer.com