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Cortisol
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9/19/13 1:28 AM
Cortisol: Why "The Stress Hormone" is Public Enemy No. 1

Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1
5 simple ways to lower your cortisol levels without drugs
Published on January 22, 2013 by Christopher Bergland in The Athlete's Way

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 pubished 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 adaption 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 returns 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, anxiety and lower your cortisol levels. Below are 5 tips for reducing your cortisol levels everyday:

1. Regular Physical Activity: Kick boxing, sparring, or a punching bag are terrific ways to recreate the “fight” response by letting out aggression (without hurting anyone) and to reduce cortisol.

Any aerobic activity, like walking, jogging, swimming, biking, 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 20-30 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 similar benefits with added benefits of mindfulness training.

If your schedule is too hectic to squeeze in a continuous session of aerobic activity, you can reap the same benefits by breaking daily activity into smaller doses. An easy way to guarantee regular activity is to build inadvertant activity into your daily routine. Try things such as riding a bike to work, walking to the store, taking the stairs instead of the escalator... These all add up to a cumulative tally of reduced cortisol at the end of the day.

2. Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM): Any type of meditation will reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol. The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation that activates your ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response take 10 deep breaths and feel your entire body relax and decompress.

Setting aside 10-15 minutes to practice mindfulness or meditation will fortify a sense of calm throughout your nervous system, mind, and brain. There are many different types of meditation. “Meditating” doesn’t have to be a sacred or new-agey “woo-woo” experience. People often ask me specifically what kind of meditation I do and how to practice “Loving-Kindness Meditation” (LKM). I am not an expert on this, but have developed a technique that works for me. I suggest that you do more research, visit a meditation center if you can, and fine-tune a daily meditation practice that fits your schedule and personality. Below is my daily 'meditation routine':

Example of Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) method.

I like to practice two types of meditation in one 15-minute session. Personally, I like to use a timer and an “Om” or “Aum” track I have on my iTunes. Some purists might call this ‘sacrilege’, but it works for me, and it might work for you....

To begin, I jot down the names of people I know who are struggling or suffering on a notecard. Next, I set my iPhone to a 15-minute countdown that ends in a “harp” sound. Then, I sit upright in a chair with my legs crossed at the ankles, set the timer, start the Om/Aum track and sit with my palms open and facing upwards on my knees.

I begin with a "Mindfulness" meditation of simply focusing on my breath and repeating my ‘mantra’ which is three words that resonate with me. You can choose any word or combination of words that have meaning and significance to you. I repeat these words silently in my mind like a rosary as I take deep breaths, relax my shoulders and feel myself drift into a trance-like state.

After a few minutes, I move into the “Loving-Kindness Meditation” (LKM) phase which has three steps for me. First, I go through the checklist of specific people I know who are struggling, suffering (or frustrating me) and send them love, light, strength, and compassion...Secondly, I move to universal thoughts of loving-kindness for strangers I may have read about in the news or larger populations that are suffering. Thirdly, as part of the LKM phase I focus on self-compassion and forgive myself for my ‘trespasses’ and ask for atonement.

After I’ve completed the LKM cycle, I return back to a single-focused meditation of emptying my mind and focus on my breathing until the alarm goes off. When I hear the harp sound there is always a Pavlovian conditioned response of an 'ahhh' feeling accompanied by a big exhale as I open my eyes and face the real world again.

Remember, you can meditate anytime and any place. There don't have to be strict boundaries to when and how you do it. Mindfulness and meditation is a powerful de-stressor and cortisol reducer that is always in your toolbox and at your fingertips. You can squeeze in a few minutes of meditation on the subway, in a waiting room, on a coffee break... I hope this advice is helpful to you.

3. Social Connectivity: Two studies published this week in the journal Science illustrate that social agression and isolation lead to increased levels of cortisol in mice that trigger a cascade of potential mental health problems—especially in adolescence.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins established that elevated levels of cortisol in adolescence change the expression of numerous genes linked to mental illness in some people. They found that these changes in young adulthood—which is a critical time for brain development—could cause severe mental illness in those predisposed for it. These findings, reported in the January 2013 journal Science, could have wide-reaching implications in both the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia, severe depression and other mental illnesses.

Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his team set out to simulate social isolation associated with the difficult years of adolescence in human teens. They found that isolating mice known to have a genetic predisposition for mental illness during their adolescence triggered ‘abnormal behaviors’ that continued even when returned to the group. They found that the effects of adolescent isolation lasted into the equivalent of mouse adulthood.

"We have discovered a mechanism for how environmental factors, such as stress hormones, can affect the brain's physiology and bring about mental illness," says Sawa, the study leader. "We've shown in mice that stress in adolescence can affect the expression of a gene that codes for a key neurotransmitter related to mental function and psychiatric illness. While many genes are believed to be involved in the development of mental illness, my gut feeling is environmental factors are critically important to the process."

To shed light on how and why some mice got better, Sawa and his team studied the link between cortisol and the release of dopamine. Sawa says the new study suggests that we need to think about better preventative care for teenagers who have mental illness in their families, including efforts to protect them from social stressors, such as neglect. Meanwhile, by understanding the cascade of events that occurs when cortisol levels are elevated, researchers may be able to develop new compounds to target tough-to-treat psychiatric disorders with fewer side effects.

In another study, published on January 18, 2013 in the journal Science researchers from France revealed that mice who were subjected to aggression, by specific mice bred to be ‘bullies’ released cortisol which triggered a response that led to social aversion to all other mice. The exact cascade of neurobiological changes was complex but also involved dopamine. The researchers found that if they blocked the cortisol receptors that the ‘bullied’ mice became more resilient and no longer avoided their fellow creatures.

Close knit human bonds—whether it be family, friendship or a romantic partner—are vital for your physical and mental health at any age. Recent studies have shown that the Vagus nerve also responds to human connectivity and physical touch to relax your parasympathetic nervous system.

The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposit to “fight-or-flight”. The "tend-and-befriend" response increases oxytocin and reduces cortisol. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can, but phone calls and even Facebook can reduce cortisol if they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity.

4. Laughter and Levity: Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Dr. William Fry is an American psychiatrist who has been studying the benefits of laughter for the past 30 years and has found links to laughter and lowered levels of stress hormones. Many studies have shown the benefits of having a sense of humor, laughter and levity. Try to find ways in your daily life to laugh and joke as much as possible and you'll lower cortisol levels.

5. Music: Listening to Music that you love, and fits whatever mood you're in, has been shown to lower cortisol levels. I recently wrote about the wide range of benefits that come from listening to music in a Psychology Today blog title “The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation”. We all know the power of music to improve mood and reduce stress. Add reducing your cortisol levels as another reason to keep the music playing as a soundtrack of health and happiness in your life.

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/19/13 2:04 AM as a reply to Richard Zen.
That's ridiculous... Cortisol is an hormone essential to survival ([url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addison's_disease]if you don't have enough cortisol, you die), and it is an adequate response to stress. Just because cortisol is there whenever stress is, that doesn't mean that it is cortisol that causes heart disease etc, it could be stress itself, or something else. To paint cortisol as the bad guy is ridiculous, and reveals a way of looking at how the body works that is flawed and typical of modern medicine, in my opinion.

For instance it is known that high cholesterol is associated with heart disease. Next thing you know, people with high cholesterol are given medicine that prevents the liver from making cholesterol.. Again a hormone that has a number of functions in the body. This is done without any real deep understanding of why cholesterol causes heart disease, or why it shows up in the first place. As if disguising that particular marker somehow amended what caused high cholesterol.

RE: Cortisol
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9/19/13 8:08 AM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
Do people read posts anymore and do they understand context? This is an article about excess cortisol from a fight or flight response. It even mentions eustress and normal levels. Excess levels can be associated with Irritable bowel syndrome (which I used to have from bullying at work before I learned to meditate and cure it). I used to be angry almost all the time. That's in the past thankfully.

For god sakes why are any people even in this forum? It's precisely because of too much stress that people notice a difference in meditation. Even you propose exercise to reduce stress. Then you post an article that has nothing to do with people with high stress but a rare disease that has nothing to do with negative thinking but is caused by immune problems and infection. emoticon

The ironic thing is that typing this post wasn't as stressful as it would be in the past.emoticon

I wish you lost of eustress and little distress.emoticon

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/19/13 8:49 AM as a reply to Richard Zen.
The article is fine, its recommendations are solid (the 5 things to do about stress). I endorse them entirely. In my replying I tend to focus on those aspects which I disagree with... I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing, do you? Sorry if it was a tad unbalanced. Some people like confrontational, some dislike it.

But saying that (quote) "The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one." is completely absurd, in my opinion.

Talking about cortisol itself as if it was the culprit gives off the idea that what needs to be done is to "lower the levels of cortisol". And this kind of idea is easily made widespread (by articles such as the one you posted), and people start thinking in terms of "oh my god, I have too much cortisol", when that is not their problem at all. Just search on the internet for "medication to lower cortisol" and you will find supplements and pills that you can take for that purpose; and if they are for sale it is because people buy them, and they buy them because of articles which, though well intended and even giving good advice, phrase things very poorly.

The parallel with cholesterol is perfect. For decades now people have cut back on eating eggs (an excellent source of nutrition) because "they have a lot of cholesterol", simply because the idea that "cholesterol is bad" is easy to take in, whereas the idea that "bad cholesterol increases due to a number of factors many of which we don't know or understand, and is an indicator that something else is going wrong, due to its correlation with heart disease, stroke etc" is much more complex.

Cholesterol, and cortisol, are there for a purpose. Cortisol serves to up-regulate energy levels in the body when it is stressed. And that is a good thing. When you are ill with a fever, cortisol is upped to help your body deal with that stressful period. This increases the metabolism, and it should; I've read the story of a woman who, upon becoming sick with mononucleosis, and that being an unusual diagnosis for her age, was diagnosed depressed and given anti-anxiety pills which lowered cortisol — she almost died from it, because her body was unable to fight back the disease.

And it all stems from the asinine idea that "cortisol is bad".

Stress is bad. Cortisol is essential for survival (i.e. good). Excess cortisol indicates excessive stress, but it is the stress that's hurting you, not the cortisol.

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/19/13 7:29 PM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
Bruno Loff:
Stress is bad. Cortisol is essential for survival (i.e. good). Excess cortisol indicates excessive stress, but it is the stress that's hurting you, not the cortisol.


I'm assuming you miss worded that.

Stress and the brain

So, does stress kill brain cells?
The answer seems to be yes.
Stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol.

Giving rats daily injections of corticosterone (rat cortisol) for several weeks kills certain brain cells. Stressing the rats each day for the same amount of time has an identical effect.

Cortisol has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for your episodic memory) and there is robust evidence that chronic stress causes premature brain aging.

Without cortisol you would die – but too much of it is not a good thing. It seems it makes your brain more vulnerable to damage such as strokes, ageing and stressful events.

Stress and depression

It's quite clear that chronic stress is related to depression.

A common feature of depression is an excess release of cortisol into the blood. Some neuroscientists and psychiatrists are now suggesting that the major changes in serotonin and other neurotransmitters seen in depression are not the cause of depression, but secondary to changes in the stress response.


It's not the confrontational side of the post but it looked like throwing out the baby with the bathwater because of a exaggerated title used to gain attention as you see in most magazines (including psychology today).

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 2:10 AM as a reply to Richard Zen.
Hmm... I tried to verify it by using google scholar, but couldn't find said study (closest I found). I did find a study that injected cortisol into primates and found no difference in their brain cell count (link); in the abstract they conclude "These findings suggest that chronically elevated cortisol concentrations, in the absence of stress, do not produce hippocampal neuronal loss in nonhuman primates." But of course, in many cases nowadays you can find studies to support whatever you already believe in, so I think this is far from conclusive. My impression of the matter is this: psychiatrists don't really understand how stress causes brain damage; it is likely a complex combination of many factors which are hard to pinpoint, but it is very alluring to just blame it on one substance, because then you can do stuff about it. And this is a very standard way of approaching health nowadays, as testified the very many drugs which inhibit cortisol production, or which prevent the reuptake of serotonin, or which inhibit cholesterol production...

(I had the misfortune of finding a most horrific study: it turns out that if you castrate mice and then pretend to drown them for 15m every day, they become really depressed and their brain cells start dying (link)! I wonder if the fraction of psychopaths is larger than normal in this particular field... )

In any case, you are right: it is an excessive reaction to an otherwise helpful article, and by focusing on this specific flaw, and pursuing it so vigorously, I am diverting the attention away from its helpful content. My apologies.

Again, like I said, I fully endorse the 5 steps mentioned on the article to help with excessive stress.

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 5:20 AM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
I don't generally like to pull the "Trust me, I am a doctor" thing, but in this case, I can say that study after study shows that too much cortisol from stress will fuck yo' shit up.

For example, the fact that I get my circadian rhythm disrupted so often for my work will likely kill me 10 years earlier than if I hadn't worked a job that involves that, with the primary mechanism being related to cortisol.

So, while it is definitely also true that too little cortisol is a problem, too much is also a problem, particularly as we are no longer in the jungle fighting with tigers or whatever and instead are staring at screens at 5 in the morning like I am now.

I thought I would be able to sleep, but I was totally wrong, as I have been on a night schedule, and so cortisol is screwing my body up as we speak.

I actually think that one of the bigger ways that meditation will slowly creep into medicine is related to its lowering cortisol levels.

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 8:52 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Daniel M. Ingram:
I don't generally like to pull the "Trust me, I am a doctor" thing, but in this case, I can say that study after study shows that too much cortisol from stress will fuck yo' shit up.


If there are studies showing that the cortisol from stress, by itself, is harmful, then I am wrong.

Are the studies you mention such studies? How do these studies separate the effects of cortisol itself from the effects of whichever stress brought it up? Or from other correlates of stress?

E.g., if there is a statistic saying that people who mess up their sleeping pattern live shorter lives, and with the knowledge that sleeping cycles are regulated through cortisol, that isn't enough to point the finger at the substance and say: here's the culprit. Maybe these people live less because they rest less? Or for some other cause...

(EDIT: Case in point: Quote from Robb Wolf's article. Studies have shown that inadequate sleep has a definite effect on appetite and hunger hormones. In fact, research suggests that not getting enough shut eye may mess with the body’s carbohydrate metabolism resulting in high levels of glucose in the blood. You know what that means… When your bloodstream is having a glucose party the insulin police get called to shut down the fun. Overproduction of insulin (because big parties make it necessary to call in reinforcement) promotes fat storage and eventually leads to insulin resistance (the insulin force just up and retires…). The next thing you know – you’ve got “the diabetes” (it’s like a life sentence with no chance of parole). So is it really the cortisol, or is it a much more complicated combination of factors?)

A related question: if rats, say, are subject to the same source of excessive stress, but their cortisol release is artificially inhibited by some drug, are they no longer subject to the negative effects of excessive stress?

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 7:37 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Daniel M. Ingram:
I don't generally like to pull the "Trust me, I am a doctor" thing, but in this case, I can say that study after study shows that too much cortisol from stress will fuck yo' shit up.

For example, the fact that I get my circadian rhythm disrupted so often for my work will likely kill me 10 years earlier than if I hadn't worked a job that involves that, with the primary mechanism being related to cortisol.

So, while it is definitely also true that too little cortisol is a problem, too much is also a problem, particularly as we are no longer in the jungle fighting with tigers or whatever and instead are staring at screens at 5 in the morning like I am now.

I thought I would be able to sleep, but I was totally wrong, as I have been on a night schedule, and so cortisol is screwing my body up as we speak.

I actually think that one of the bigger ways that meditation will slowly creep into medicine is related to its lowering cortisol levels.


Have you looked at Robb Wolf's stuff? He does a lot of work with shift-workers. He's the one who turned me on to sleeping in a pitch black room.

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 2:56 PM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
"If there are studies showing that the cortisol from stress, by itself, is harmful, then I AM WRONG."

I never thought I'd live to see the day you wrote that!
All my illusions are shattered. emoticon

Brian

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/21/13 3:22 AM as a reply to Brian Eleven.
Brian Eleven:
"If there are studies showing that the cortisol from stress, by itself, is harmful, then I AM WRONG."

I never thought I'd live to see the day you wrote that!
All my illusions are shattered. emoticon

Brian


Just so you know: I have never befriended someone who can't admit to being wrong. So, in my book, your little snide remark is really — really — offensive. You write it like a little joke which allows you to say something really mean under the radar... shame on you, can't even face up to an insult.

I will post less from now on, and more on-topic. The recent profusion of opinions is partly due to boredom and loneliness — I apologize.

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 4:55 PM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
Sorry if it appeared to be under the radar.
It was meant as an upfront and obvious insult regarding your need odd to be right and your willingness to argue with anyone about anything. Clearly I have an issue with people who seem to argue just for the sake of arguing.
Post or don't, I don't care either way.

Brian.

RE: Cortisol
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9/20/13 7:12 PM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
Okay guys it's not the end of the world what Bruno did. It's ironic that this train-wreck of a thread is called Cortisol LOL!

RE: Cortisol
Answer
9/20/13 7:36 PM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
I thought I would be able to sleep, but I was totally wrong, as I have been on a night schedule, and so cortisol is screwing my body up as we speak.


There is an old thread where Kenneth Folk writes:

In my own experience, NS is a way to completely power down the mind. Have you ever hit the "kill switch" on a lawn mower? The switch works either by cutting off the flow of fuel to the engine or by preventing the spark plug from igniting the fuel/air mixture in the combustion chamber. In either case, the engine does not stop immediately, but gradually slows down and eventually stops. If you take your finger off the kill switch before the engine has stopped completely, it speeds up and resumes normal operation. NS is very much like this. I talk to my wife about this when it's time to go to sleep. Sometimes I say, "OK, I need to get up early tomorrow, so I'm going to hit the off switch." I hit the off switch, and become unconscious within a few seconds. As a practical skill, it's very useful, as I almost never lie awake in bed anymore.


Is this something you have tried to fall asleep? Does it not work in the way Kenneth describes unless one has been awake for a certain amount of time (similar to how Richard of the AFT says he cannot fall asleep for his required 4 hours unless he has been awake for 16-20 or so hours?)