Life is full of ups and downs, and some of them can be stressful. If we are lucky, stress is a short-term event. But often situations occur that keep us stressed for days, weeks, or months. This experience of non-stop stress can cause significant damage to our health, mind and emotions. Understanding the mechanisms of our stress response can help us minimize and control the damage.
The medical dictionary describes stress as “any physical, emotional, social, economic or other factor that requires a response to change.” The human body is brilliantly designed to react to stress in order to survive. It does so by activating the secretion of the hormone cortisol. This initiates a cascade of physiological responses.
Cortisol is meant to be a “quick fix”. It turns “off” many of our normal physiological mechanisms while it turns “on” many temporary mechanisms. It is the source of the “fight or flight” response. Ideally after an emergency situation has been resolved our metabolic functions go back to normal. If we are under constant stress, however, the long-term secretion of cortisol can compromise our health and permanently alter our metabolic process.
Some of the documented results of long-term stress include:
Results of Long-Term Stress
1. Weakened immune response leading to heightened vulnerability to infection
2. Memory loss: excess cortisol can overwhelm the hippocampus and actually cause atrophy. Studies of the elderly have indicated that those with elevated cortisol levels display significant memory loss resulting from hippocampus damage. Luckily the damage incurred is usually reversible.
3. An increase in abdominal fat. Researchers at Yale University found slender women who had high cortisol also had more abdominal fat. Abdominal, or visceral, fat is a key player in a variety of health problems Visceral fat has been linked to metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In women, it is also associated with breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery.
While we may not be able to eliminate the stress in our lives, we can take measures to give the body the relief from stress that it needs in order to stay healthy.
1. Decrease consumption of caffeine and alcohol, both of which impact cortisol levels
2. Go to bed by 10:00. Getting six hours or less over time can significantly increase cortisol levels. It takes a full 7 to 8 hours of sleep to give your body enough time to recover from the day’s stresses.
3. Practice a stress reduction technique.
The Transcendental Meditation technique (TM) has been found to lower cortisol levels. The lowering is greater in those who practice TM regularly. The longer people practice TM, the more pronounced is the effect.
TM was also found to decrease the time it took for the body return to normal functioning following stressful stimuli. This is significant because high cortisol levels can actually create a self-perpetuating loop by disrupting the delicate feedback balance that tells the brain to stop releasing cortisol.
Researchers concluded that the Transcendental Meditation technique gives the body a reprieve from experiencing stress, and as a result, the body care respond more normally to stress stimuli of short duration.
4. Schedule a week of Panchakarma treatments
Multiple studies have shown that massage therapy can lower cortisol levels, increase dopamine and serotonin (our happy, feel-good hormones), and lower excitatory hormones like norepinephrine and epinephrine.
A week of luxurious in-residence treatments can provide a much-needed break from the day-to-day pressures at work and home.
More Stress-Busting Recommendations
- Get more spinach in your diet. Spinach has magnesium, which help balance your body’s production of cortisol.
- Eat more citrus fruits. Research has shown that citrus fruits like oranges and kiwis have high content of vitamin C, which help slow the production of cortisol.
- Make sure you’re getting enough healthy omega-3 oils in your diet. These healthy fats not only inhibit inflammation, but also help lower cortisol levels and reduce stress.
- Get some Holy Basil in your diet! This tasty herb is an adaptogen herb, which is a unique class of healing plants that help reduce the production of stress related hormones.
- Research has shown that zinc helps inhibit the production of cortisol. Vegetarians can get zinc from cashews, pumpkin seeds, spinach and beans.
- Good news! Dark chocolate has high levels of anti-oxidants that help decrease inflammation and slow the secretion of cortisol. Just make sure that it’s at least 70% dark chocolate.
Arming ourselves with an understanding of the stress response and minimizing stress and its impact on our minds and bodies is key to maintaining balanced health. This is why any responsible health program must include stress reduction techniques. Learn more about Panachkarma treatments and learning the Transcendental Meditation technique at The Raj, Ayurveda Health Spa: