Ever hear of "cortisol belly?" It refers to a stubborn deposit of fat that makes itself known around the midsection, and afflicts busy and important people like us - even those that watch diet and exercise obsessively.
If you eat lightly and exercise often but still can’t seem to shake your spare tire, you may need to take a good hard look at the stressors in your life.
Cortisol is our primary stress hormone, one of many chemicals released by the adrenal system when the brain sends out its "fight or flight" signals. In a period of acute stress, cortisol serves some important survival functions:
All of this comes in handy when you're fighting off a predator, but it's a bit overkill for your 90-minute rush-hour commute.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our secretion of cortisol is an ancestral adaptation that probably helped us escape the wrath of sabre-toothed tigers so our Homo Sapiens forbears could evolve into the super-smart humans we are today. The problem is, modern-day man is constantly under persistent, low-level stress. We are ALWAYS secreting cortisol.
Cortisol is only meant to exist in our bloodstream for short periods of time while dealing with an immediate stressor, but it doesn’t quite happen that way for modern man. Adrenal fatigue is what happens when your adrenal glands simply can't keep up with the continued stress you throw at it, and it has many health consequences.
A continuous overabundance of cortisol in our systems can lead to:
High blood pressure, suppressed thyroid function, decreased muscle tissue and lowered bone density round out some of the more prominent symptoms of excessive cortisol secretion.
“I’m soooooo busy.”
How often do you hear this? It’s the popular refrain from friends and loved ones bogged down by work, family, extracurricular activities, traffic, expectations, bills, chores and, well . . . life. This is one of those conditions that come with the territory of living in our modern world. We constantly experience persistent, low-level stress, and it's doing us no favors.
So what can we do? Shy of quitting our jobs and taking a long vacation away from our families, we can learn to manage stress, and to dial our level of chronic stress down.
Exercise - but not too much! Here’s a catch-22: we need to exercise to be healthy, but overtraining is a stressor that can trigger a release of cortisol. Studies have shown that people training for a marathon have higher levels of cortisol in the blood than those who exercise at a moderate intensity for a moderate amount of time. Find your sweet-spot. Choose exercise you love to do, that makes you feel good, and do it long enough to feel suitably fatigued. Regularly pushing yourself beyond that limit will do you no favours.
Yoga. While it’s not everyone’s cup of (organic fair-trade green) tea, yoga has been proven to calm us. Whether it’s the emphasis on deep, peaceful, controlled breathing and the surge in life-giving oxygen it provides, or the stress release that comes with stretching the tension away from our muscles, yoga can leave you feeling brand new. Look for a Hatha or Restorative yoga class to get the best stress-busting benefits.
Listen to music. Put on your favorite tunes. Sing along. Dance around. Get your endorphins pumping. Endorphins are the (unofficial) antidote to stress; simply allowing oneself a moment of true joy has been shown to reduce cortisol levels almost on contact.
Organize your time and space. Living in chaos can throw our minds into chaos. Set your sights on organizing your home, your office, your car and your schedule. Make time and space for peace.
Unplug. Our connectivity puts us under pressure. Pressure to answer an email as soon as it comes in – even at the wee hours of the morning when nobody expects you to be answering emails. Pressure to schedule every moment of our lives. Pressure, even, to update our status (strange but true!). Unplug your gadgets for a few hours a day, and free your mind.
Get quality sleep. Shoot for eight hours in a completely quiet, completely black room. Poor sleep patterns have been strongly linked to increased cortisol secretion.
Finally, manage expectations. If something goes wrong at work or at home, try to worry only about the parts that you truly can do anything about. So much of the things that stress us out are out of our control. Recognize when you’re stressing over something you can’t fix anyway, and settle down. Life will go on if that contract doesn’t get mailed today, if the kids are late for their field trip or if you forget to bake a casserole for your potluck lunch.
Remember: “It’s all small stuff.”