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All you need to know about cortisol

Right now we live uncertain and stressful times due to COVID-19. We have been forced to change our routines. Our bodies have already paid the price… have you gained weight during quarantine? This new situation can cause discomfort and anxiety. Lately I have come across clients who had gained a lot of weight during quarantine. They blame lack of exercise and/or overeating, but in many cases there is another reason. I have had to explain to many clients how cortisol may be affecting their lives and their bodies. Today I will explain everything you need to know about cortisol, the stress hormone. I hope you find it useful.
 

Cortisol: what is it, function, normal values and alterations

 
Above the kidneys we have the adrenal glands, whose function is to release different hormones. The outer part of the gland, called the adrenal cortex, makes the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. The inner part of the gland, called the adrenal medulla, produces the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine.
When you are facing a threat, your hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This system prompts the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises blood pressure, and increases energy supplies. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and improves glucose use in the brain. Cortisol also reduces functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a “fight or flight” situation (immune, digestive, reproductive, and growth processes). This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
 
Back in the day, this survival mechanism served us to flee from some dangerous animal. Nowadays, we face stressful situations a little different: not being late for work, finishing projects on time, meetings, not missing the bus to meet friends … In all these situations, our body reacts by becoming alert, hoping to overcome adversity and threats. In the short term, the release of cortisol is very helpful and serves as a form of protection for your body. In combination with adrenaline, the two hormones perform many important tasks in your body. Iin stressful situations, they prepare you to be on top of your game. Cortisol works to improve your performance. Essentially, cortisol activates you in demanding situations. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume normal activities. So far so good.
The reference values for cortisol levels in the blood are:
  • Morning: 5 to 25 µg / dL;
  • End of the day: less than 10 mcg / dL.
  • At very high levels it can reach 80 μg / dl.
 
When stressors are always present and you constantly feel in danger, that fight or flight reaction stays on. Long-term activation of the stress response system and overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that act accordingly can disrupt almost every process in your body. This increases the risk of many health problems, such as:
 
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Insomnia
  • Increase in blood sugar
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased thirst and urinary frequency
  • Memory lapsus
  • Difficulty in learning
  • Little growth
  • Decrease in testosterone
  • Decreased libido
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Increased probability of suffering from osteoporosis
Fortunately, it can reduce excess cortisol production. How does this work?

7 science-backed ways to lower cortisol

 
1.- Cut on sugar: One of the easiest ways to fight high cortisol levels, stress, and weight gain is to cut down on the simple sugars found in cakes, candy, soda, or white bread. Cortisol regulates the level of sugar in the blood. If you eat foods with a lot of sugar, your blood sugar level and consequently your cortisol levels will rise. Ironically, many people eat sugary foods to relax. However, sugar causes an increased release of cortisol. The combination of sugar with white flour, which is used in many cakes and sweets, raises cortisol levels even more. Choosing complex carbohydrates, rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats (whole grains, dairy, legumes or vegetables) will help you lower cortisol levels.
2.- Eat foods rich in phenylalanine and vitamin C: Phenylalanine is an amino acid that helps release dopamine. Dopamine will reduce the urge to eat carbohydrates and sugars and therefore wiil help reduce stress. Phenylalanine is found mostly in protein foods like dairy, eggs, red meat, fish, and some whole grains. Vitamin C, like dopamine, also helps to secrete dopamine and reduce stress. Vitamin C is found in vegetables and fruits.
 
3.- Cut or reduce caffeine intake: It is not just sugar, caffeine also greatly increases the production of cortisol. Coffee, energy drinks, and the like stimulate the adrenal glands, causing them to release more cortisol. Regular caffeine consumption can double the blood cortisol content. A good alternative is green tea. It only contains about a quarter of the caffeine, but at the same time the tea has a relaxing effect thanks to a special amino acid. A study from the Ben-Gurion University School of Health Sciences recently found that the amino acid L-theanine counteracts the production of cortisol and reduces its levels in the blood.
4.- Avoid or limit alcohol intake: A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that men who only had one drink a week saw a 3% increase in their cortisol levels, and those levels can be even higher if they are under tremendous pressure. Since it is a depressant of the nervous system, it can also cause depressive states.
 
5.- Adequate hydration: Drinking enough water a day – around eight glasses – is essential to better regulate cortisol levels. According to a 2018 study of young soccer players, even mild dehydration can lead to an increase in cortisol levels.
 
6.- Moderate-intensity exercise: We are not talking about training as long or as hard as possible. High intensity sport for about 15-20 minutes can stimulate cortisol production. The reason for this is again anchored in the human “fight or flight” response. For example, sprint can trigger a complex stress reaction. Your brain receives the message that you are fleeing danger and proceeds to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. However, if you want to lower your cortisol levels, you should do moderate-intensity exercise. A study published in The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation  has investigated the best ways to lower cortisol levels. The results indicated that relaxing sports, such as yoga or meditation, are the most appropriate. That said, other more active types of sports are definitely appropriate as well. 20 to 30 minutes of light physical activity – such as walking or biking – will reduce your stress and therefore consume excess cortisol.
In addition, including relaxation and meditation exercises in your routine will reduce the risk of experiencing chronic stress, a study from Ohio State University has concluded.
 

7.- Dark chocolate!!!

Believe it or not, dark chocolate keeps cortisol levels stable. A 2019 study published in the journal Antioxidants suggests that consuming just 25 grams of dark chocolate each day may lower overall cortisol levels.

Stressful events are part of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage how these events affect you. You can learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in stressful situations. The reward  is peace of mind and perhaps a longer, healthier life.
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Here are some ways to create a new you by Constance Ray

We’re now well into the new year, and how have your resolutions fared? Perfectly well, we’re sure. But in case you want to make 2018 the new year of you, here are some ways to make self-improvement a priority in your life. Just work on these few things, and you will feel like a new person in no time.

 

Join a gym — You know you need to exercise more, and you know a gym will help you do it. Start shopping around for a place to workout. Look for affordability, location and offerings. If you’re a person who likes group fitness classes, don’t join a gym with a weak offering. If you like weights, try to find one where bodybuilders and powerlifters workout. If you like having a personal trainer, check to see that the ones who work with that gym are certified. Most gyms will let you try it out first, so give it a whirl before you sign up. You should feel comfortable.

 

Upgrade your wardrobe — If you’ve been lounging around in jeans and sweatpants your whole adult life, it might be time to start looking like a grown professional. Just buy a couple of pieces every paycheck, and you won’t have to break the bank. Also, try to find pieces that can be mixed and matched with some stuff you already have, so you aren’t stuck with the same exact outfit over and over. Shop thrift shops and consignment sales, and you’re bound to find some great buys!

 

Kick that addiction — If you’ve struggled with addiction to drugs or alcohol and are now working on getting clean, there are ways to enhance your chances of staying that way. Studies have shown that diet and exercise can be a great boost to staying free of addiction. Yoga and meditation can also help you become more centered.

 

Quit smoking — This is the year you’ll do it! You know you need to, and you know it won’t be easy. Talk to your doctor about the best way to quit. She knows the latest in smoking cessation methods and which ones are backed by studies. She might offer to prescribe medication to make quitting easier, or she might direct you to a local support program. There are so many ways to quit, that if one doesn’t work for you, you can always try another. Just imagine all the money you’ll save. Don’t give up on your lungs.

 

Take some personal time — If you’ve been neglecting yourself for the sake of others, try to make some time for yourself. Go to a spa, get a facial, a mani-pedi and get your hair done. You don’t have to do it all at once, but taking time for yourself is important. It will help you stay refreshed so you can go about your day, as well as help reduce stress.

 

Get creative — Take an art class, write a book, start coloring or work on a long-forgotten project. Using the creative part of your brain will help you focus better on your daily life and boost your overall happiness. It forces you to use a part of your brain that you may not use very often, which is always good for continuing development. Some studies show that art education can even benefit you physically.

 

When you set a goal to improve yourself, you are committing to a better life. And who doesn’t want that? Take each goal a little at a time, and you’ll start to notice your success as you go. The more you take care of yourself, you increase the odds of living longer and living better. Don’t give up on your dreams: You can make this your best year ever.

Constance Ray

Constance Ray

Constance Ray started Recoverywell.org with the goal of creating a safe place for people to share how addiction has affected them, whether they are combating it themselves or watching someone they care about work to overcome it. The goal is to share stories of hope from survivors who know that the fight against addiction is one worth having, because no matter how it affects you, life can get better.

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How You Can Keep Moving With A Busy Schedule

Many of us spend on average 8+ hours sitting at our desks, traveling in planes, trains, and automobiles or on the couch; top that off with another 6-8 hours sleeping. That can add up to nearly 20 hours of sedentary sludge. Sitting invites stagnation and our fascia (the material protecting and supporting our body as a unit) begins to reshape so we start to take on the shape of our chairs. Our hips become tight, ankle movement diminishes, our shoulders push forward, we forget to engage our core as we slouch and collapse our lower back, and our necks crank towards the screen.
 
First, I don´t want to take for granted that everybody knows how much is enough exercise. To stay healthy or to improve health, adults need to do three types of physical activity each week: aerobic, strength and stretching exercises. If you want to read the full Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, here: health.gov
 
It can be challenging finding time to fit in errands, work, kids, home, exercise and the million other things to get done in a day.  Time is the biggest barrier to an active lifestyle. Remove the expectation that the only way to get in shape is by going to the gym for an hour every day. This time commitment is simply not realistic for most of us.

Aerobic exercise

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. (See Mayo Clinic Web). To find what´s “moderate activity” try the “talk test”, exercising hard enough to break a sweat but not so hard you can’t comfortably carry on a conversation. Vigorous activity makes you breathe hard and fast. At this level, you won’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath. You can combine moderate and vigorous exercise over the course of the week, and it’s fine to break up your activity into smaller bursts as long as you sustain the activity for at least 10 minutes. Ideas to add some walks to your day:
 
  1. Walk while talking on the phone or conduct walking meetings.
  2. Take stairs instead of escalators and elevators.
  3. Park in spaces furthest from the entrance.
  4. Use restrooms on a different floor or furthest from you.
  5. Use half or all of your lunch hour to take a walk with a colleague.  Steve Jobs was at his most creative while walking and thinking outside in the park next to his office, and we can be, too. Apple’s founder knew that the body and mind respond to nature and to moving.
  6. Put on some good music and dance while cleaning the house!
Make a commitment to move at every opportunity, stand whenever you can!

Strength training

The Department of Health and Human Services also recommends strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least two times a week. Studies have shown strength training to increase lean body mass, decrease fat mass, and increase resting metabolic rate. Weight training has also been shown to help fight osteoporosis.
 
Strength training doesn´t mean a gym membership. There are multiple ways to strengthen your muscles at home or at the workplace: bodyweight training, resistance bands, suspension training… Choose whatever best fit your abilities and preferences. At your desk, or anywhere you spend a good amount of time at, you can perform exercises such as
  1. squats,
  2. lunges,
  3. push-ups and
  4. chair dips.
 

Stretching

The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults engage in flexibility training two to three days per week, stretching major muscle and tendon groups.
I know all this exercise seems a lot from the point of view of busy people, but all of it only takes one hour, 4% of your day.
 
Remember, you can break up your activity into smaller bursts. If your job keeps you moving all day long, activity trackers (apps or wearables) are the simplest option to keep track of it. Forget daily steps and aim for at least 30 minutes of brisk walking. You do so, daily aerobic exercise is done.
 
Stretching at the workplace is something we all should do, but very few do. Whether you work behind a desk, drive for hours, or spend long hours standing (as waiters and watchmen), some muscles get tired and you feel stiffness, soreness, and at the end of the day, even pain. You can prevent this by taking a few 5 minutes breaks along the day to stretch and relax problematic areas like legs, lower back, shoulders, neck, and wrists. 3 little breaks and you´d be stretching 15 minutes every day. Examples of such stretches or postures can be:
  1. Doing core exercises.
  2. Stretching your legs and back when you are on your desk.
  3. Using a door frame or anything sturdy to stretch your chest.
     
     

These stretches will reduce the negative effects that sitting has on your body. It also improves one’s quality of life.

Find an exercise schedule and activities that work for you so that you stay fit and healthy. Once you learn to make time – and it doesn’t have to be a monumental commitment – the benefits will outweigh any desire you may have had to sacrifice your health by staying on the sidelines. Keep in mind that it is possible to get all the exercise you need without using equipment, attending a class or going to the gym.

The most important key is to change the mindset. Exercise shouldn’t be a chore. It should be time for you.  Don’t be afraid to make time for yourself. You are worth it!

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Reverse Table Pose

Reverse Table Pose

After a long day studying, driving, or in front of the computer, you need to try this one.

It´s a yoga posture that provides a deep stretch to the upper body, including your shoulders, chest, abdomen, and spine. This pose will build strength throughout all the core muscles and the muscles surrounding the spine. It also improves balance and posture. Additionally, it will strengthen the wrists, arms, glutes, legs, and back. It also restores balance after sports and activities that require forward motion, such as swimming, biking, or playing tennis.

Begin by sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your arms resting at your sides. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor.

Place your hands behind your hips, shoulder-width apart. Press your palms flat, and turn your fingertips inward.

Inhale and press with your hands and feet. Straighten your elbows, and lift your hips and chest up toward the ceiling. Try to bring your chest, torso, and knees into one straight line, parallel to the floor.

Keep your legs active and firm, but do not squeeze your glutes.

If you are comfortable here, then gently drop your head back so the crown of your head faces the floor. Gaze gently at the wall behind you. Breathe softly.

Namaste :)