The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease... The list goes on and on.
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience — especially in adolescence.
Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. The fight-or-flight mechanism is part of the general adaptation syndrome defined in 1936 by Canadian biochemist Hans Selye of McGill University in Montreal. He published his revolutionary findings in a simple seventy-four-line article in Nature, in which he defined two types of "stress": eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress).
Both eustress and distress release cortisol as part of the general adaptation syndrome. Once the alarm to release cortisol has sounded, your body becomes mobilized and ready for action — but there has to be a physical release of fight or flight. Otherwise, cortisol levels build up in the blood, which wreaks havoc on your mind and body.
Eustress creates a "seize-the-day" heightened state of arousal, which is invigorating and often linked with a tangible goal. Cortisol levels return to normal upon completion of the task. Distress, or free-floating anxiety, doesn't provide an outlet for the cortisol and causes the fight-or-flight mechanism to backfire. Ironically, our own biology — which was designed to insure our survival as hunters and gatherers — is sabotaging our bodies and minds in a sedentary digital age. What can we do to defuse this time-bomb?
Luckily, you can make 5 simple lifestyle choices that will reduce stress and anxiety and lower your cortisol levels:
1. Regular Physical Activity: Kickboxing, sparring, or a punching bag are terrific ways to recreate the “fight” response by letting out aggression (without hurting anyone), thus reducing cortisol.
Aerobic activities, like walking, jogging, swimming, biking, or riding the elliptical, are great ways to recreate the "flight" outlet and burn up cortisol. A little bit of cardio goes a long way. Just 20 to 30 minutes of activity most days of the week pays huge dividends by lowering cortisol every day and in the long run.
Fear increases cortisol. Regular physical activity will decrease fear by increasing your self-confidence, resilience, and fortitude — which will reduce cortisol. Yoga will have a similar effect, with the added benefits of mindfulness training.
The Athlete's Way