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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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25 best fitness blogs

Hello, wonderful people!

Last week I received great news. Flockbrain has selected this blog as one of the 25 best fitness blogs. Flockbrain is a decision making engine that uses machine learning and social curation to find high-quality content.

This list is based on user engagement so YOU guys made this happen!!!! Thank you for every single like, comment, and share.

A lot has happened since this blog started. From a small personal project, this website has become a small business that employs seven people from as many countries. I’m a huge fan of remote work, you know?

It has been many hours of work throughout these years and you have been there all the way.
It occurs to me that, since this recognition is based on your engagement, I could answer or clarify those doubts about fitness or nutrition that haunt your head.

If it is a simple question, I will answer it in the comments and if the question needs an extensive explanation, I will write a post about it. Do you like the idea?

What would you like to know about fitness or nutrition?

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Staying Active: Advice for Seniors Seeking a Healthy and Rewarding Lifestyle

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 20 percent of the total population will be in the 65-and-over age bracket by 2030. That means Americans are living longer, and they’re living healthier as they age. It’s certainly a heartening trend, but older adults must be well-positioned to take advantage of a longer, more robust lifespan than their parents enjoyed. That means taking control of your physical and mental health (and using some technology) so you can enjoy a healthy and enjoyable quality of life – the kind you’ve earned through years of hard work. 

Healthy environment


One of the most important steps toward a healthy and active senior lifestyle is a safe, well-ordered home environment, a living space that makes it possible for you to be you without feeling restrained by fear for your physical well-being. That means arranging each room so pathways are clear and unimpeded by tripping hazards. Furniture should be arranged so you have clear passage from room to room. Cords, shoes, rugs and general clutter should be disposed of or kept in a safe storage space. And establishing an uncluttered home will alleviate stress and anxiety, leaving you better able to focus on reading, doing crosswords or jigsaw puzzles, journaling, meditating and other activities that help maintain mental acuity. 

An organized home environment also makes it easier to engage in activities that’ll help you take control of the mental and physical aspects of your life. This includes exercising. You’ll have the space you need to enjoy cardio or strength-building exercises, or you can even incorporate an exercise like yoga and achieve the flexibility and enhanced range of motion it can confer. Yoga’s many poses improve spinal flexibility, giving you a strong core upon which to build. You can even use some yoga apps that are great for beginners like Daily Yoga and Down Dog.

Branch out

To continue on an improved wellness path, try branching out into other pursuits that you enjoy, like walking and gardening, and give interesting new forms of physical engagement a try, such as Tai chi, a relaxing and meditative form of exercise that improves cardiovascular health, supports the immune system, and helps seniors improve concentration. Exercise that can be done as part of a social group is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so look into group yoga, swimming or water aerobics classes that are perfect for friends to enjoy together – it’s a lot more fun when people you love being around are involved!

Some seniors find that using a fitness tracker is a great way to monitor their progress and health as they engage in new activities. A fitness tracker can measure the basics like distance traveled and steps taken, but some of the newer devices can measure more advanced metrics like your heart rate and sleep quality. Smartwatches and fitness trackers can also help keep you safe while you work out. For example, the Apple Watch Series 4 has fall detection and will give you high and low heart rate notifications. If you prefer a lower-priced option, the Fitbit Blaze watch has GPS, a large display, and a battery that lasts up to five days

Healthcare coverage


As you age and enter the Medicare system, it’s important to understand your insurance options and how to get the coverage that best meets your needs. You may be aware that there are gaps in Medicare, though you can find ways to plug the gaps with Medicare Advantage, which provides dental and vision insurance, in addition to membership access to fitness facilities across the country. Do some research about plans available to learn more about various types of coverage and whether you could benefit.

Educate yourself

Few things engage your mind quite like learning about a subject you find really fascinating. Many seniors enjoy going back to school by enrolling in free online classes at local community colleges or online universities. Colleges in all 50 states offer such opportunities and many seniors are even able to earn degrees by taking advantage of free courses. Continuous learning keeps the brain active and healthy in many ways. In fact, your brain grows new cells and establishes new connections every time you learn something new. For older adults, learning strengthens memory and sharpens problem-solving abilities. In many cases, it even helps stave off the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

Social engagement

Studies have shown that older adults benefit significantly from regular social interaction. Spending time with friends is emotionally reinforcing and provides opportunities for physical activity (e.g., golf, walking) as do mentally stimulating games like bridge, bingo, Sudoku, chess and checkers. If you enjoy music, look into joining your church choir or a community-based musical group. 

There’s really no secret to leading a healthy mental and physical life as an older adult. Staying active is the key, and that can be difficult for many seniors. The important thing is to find ways to start small and build gradually, with the help and advice of a healthcare provider. You should have every expectation of enjoying a rich and fulfilling life as you age – after all, 65 is just a number.

Jason Lewis

is a personal trainer and the primary caretaker of his mom after her surgery. He created strongwell.org and enjoys curating fitness programs that cater to the needs of people over 65.