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Nothing wrecks your hormones faster than unmanaged stress.However, stress in and of itself is not a bad thing. A healthy dose of stress can motivate you to high levels of productivity and performance. The key is to manage your stress so that it doesn’t spiral out of control, and cause all sorts of health and hormone havoc.
Meet Cortisol: Your Main Stress HormoneCortisol is the hormone that governs your hunger cravings, digestion, blood pressure, sleep/wake patterns, physical activity, and capacity to cope with stress. Under acute stress, your body produces a brief surge in cortisol, which causes an increase in energy and focus. This reaction is designed to help you get out of bed in the morning – or out of a dangerous or challenging situation. It’s healthy and beneficial . . . when it’s infrequent. The challenge is that, for many people, the cortisol surge never turns off. Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol, or it may cause your cortisol levels to swing wildly between too high and too low – sometimes within a matter of hours in the same day. What’s worse is that many of us are hooked on this hormone imbalance. We drink coffee to wake up and wine to fall asleep. We work late and glorify “busy-ness.” And then wonder why we feel moody, anxious, tired-but-wired, and can’t stop gaining weight.
The Long-Term Effects of Cortisol ImbalanceOver time, consistently high cortisol is linked high blood pressure, prediabetes and diabetes, increased belly fat, brain changes such as atrophy of the hippocampus (where memory is synthesized), depression, suicide, insomnia, and poor wound healing. In fact, fat cells in the belly have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells elsewhere, so you just keep reinforcing the muffin top as your cortisol climbs and stays high. It's not pretty. Low cortisol can have equally undesirable consequences. It’s linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, Fibromyalgia, bone loss and burnout – just to name a few.
Getting to Goldilocks: 3 Proven Stress Management StrategiesOne of the most powerful changes you can make for your health and happiness is to get your cortisol to the “Goldilocks” level – not too high and not too low – and keep it there as much as possible. Fortunately, I’ve spent years sifting through the research and testing countless solutions, to bring you only the most effective, proven strategies for stress management. Here are three tips you can implement today to start feeling more relaxed tomorrow . . .
Strategy #1: Wean Off the CaffeineDrinking caffeine may help you feel more energized in the short-term, but it’s a high interest loan against your body that you will eventually have to pay back. In addition to spiking cortisol, caffeine dehydrates you, restricts blood flow to the brain, decreases sleep quality (even consumed in small amounts, early in the morning!), and has been linked to anxiety, bruxism (clenching or grinding your teeth at night), and the dreaded muffin top. If you’re in love with your morning cup o’ Joe, I recommend weaning off slowly, or aiming to drink the smallest dose of caffeine that supports your productivity – yet doesn’t undermine your health. This may be challenging at first, but within weeks you’ll notice you’re sleeping better, have more sustained energy throughout the day, and feel more relaxed.
Strategy #2: Try Yoga – Or Just BreatheYoga has been shown to raise your serotonin, the happy brain chemical responsible for mood, sleep, and appetite. For women this is especially important, as we have 52% less serotonin than men, according to my friend, Dr. Daniel Amen. I also believe that yoga is the best form of exercise for stress relief and getting your cortisol to a sweet spot. If you feel intimidated by the idea of taking a class with other people, watch this short stress relief yoga video, or just practice deep breathing and stretching at home for 5 minutes each day.
Strategy #3: Take Stress-Relieving SupplementsThere are a number of supplements proven to regulate cortisol levels. I recommend starting with:
- Fish Oil (Omega-3): 1,000 – 4,000 mg/day
- Phosphatidylserine (PS): 400-800 mg/day
- Rhodiola: 200 mg once/twice per day