A stressful situation — whether it’s a deadline, job insecurity or a totally new way of living thanks to a pandemic — can trigger a cascade of cortisol that produces physical changes… but you can control it.
Right now, no matter who you are or what you do, it’s a safe bet that you’re probably more stressed than usual. You’re certainly not alone. The COVID-19 outbreak — and all that’s come with it — has most of us on edge.
“The uncertainty about the future, loss of control and financial strain are all contributing to elevated stress levels at this time,” explains naturopath Belinda Kirkpatrick. “There’s also the worry about how elderly relatives and loved ones are coping, and some people feel like they’ve lost their freedom and connection to others. All of these factors combined with the fear of actually getting COVID-19 are keeping cortisol levels — your body’s primary stress hormone — uncomfortably high.”
Dr Jaime Lee, a medical doctor and founder of workplace wellness company Health Quotient, adds that the coronavirus crisis meets all the requirements for elevated cortisol.
“Research has identified three factors that universally lead to stress — uncertainty, loss of control and lack of information,” she explains. “In the current situation, all these factors are met, so stress is impacting everyone on some level.”
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.
Why cortisol matters
Since it’s commonly used to describe your stress levels, cortisol tends to get a bad rap. Produced by your adrenal glands — which sit on top of your kidneys — cortisol is actually essential to the proper functioning of your entire body.
“Cortisol is important for regulating your blood-sugar levels, sleep-wake cycles, inflammation and blood pressure,” notes Kirkpatrick.
“It also helps you exercise, grow, perform and react quickly to a perceived danger,”adds Dr Lee. “Cortisol acts on almost every tissue in the body, from your immune system, metabolism and brain through to your bones and intestines.”
When functioning normally, a spike in cortisol may occur when your brain perceives a threat — like a car racing towards you — and this primes your body for fight or flight. “If you experience shock or danger, a surge of cortisol will increase sugar in the bloodstream to help you survive and react to the stress,” explains Kirkpatrick. “It also alters immune function and suppresses digestive function to allow you to respond quickly.”
And that’s the real kicker. Although most people aren’t exposed to physical life-or-death threats on the regular, your brain reacts the same way to modern-day threats like snarky emails or news of a worldwide pandemic. “Your stress response can be triggered by any perceived threat, whether it’s physical, biological, chemical or psychological,” says Dr Lee.“To facilitate fight or flight, your heart needs to pump faster, blood needs to be diverted from the internal organs to large muscle groups and your brain needs to focus on the threat, so your sex drive and digestion decreases.”
While this may be useful in certain cases— like when you actually need to dodge a speeding car — living with sustained levels of elevated cortisol means your body can’t function the way it’s supposed to.
Too much of a good thing
According to Dr Lee, your body is able to maintain a state of equilibrium when a stress response is a one-off. However, constant stress triggered by news headlines, struggling to juggle homeschooling with working from home and worrying about loved ones day in and day out creates a string of red flags for your brain, keeping your cortisol levels raised.
“If cortisol is chronically elevated, it can result in fatigue, sugar cravings, weight gain, muscle weakness, difficulty sleeping and lowered immunity,” Kirkpatrick says.
Dr Lee adds: “The real danger occurs when your stress response is triggered over and over again without a natural resolution. This overexposure has a significant impact on many of the body’s functions and can have long-term effects such as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, decreased libido and fertility, acne and memory impairment.”
It’s a scary list of complications, but the good news is you have the power to turn it around. Plus, as Kirkpatrick notes, some people may even be experiencing lower cortisol levels during the pandemic because their usual life is more stressful.
“For people who usually burn the candle at both ends, work hard, have a busy social life and are used to running on adrenaline, you may find that slowing down and living in isolation is helping to restore your adrenal glands and reduce your cortisol levels.”
A balancing act
In times of low stress, your cortisol levels should spike in the morning (to help you wake up) and then slowly decline during the day, eventually plummeting just before bed (which helps you sleep). According to Dr Lee, it can take three to four hours for your cortisol levels to return to normal after a stress response (like an argument or high-stakes meeting), but Kirkpatrick notes if your levels have been high for some time, it can take up to six months to balance them out.
There are ways to stop your cortisol from peaking in the first place, try these to get you started…
1. Make friends with herbs
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, Kirkpatrick suggests taking a supplement containing withania (also known as ashwagandha). This herb has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, and it’s been proven to reduce stress levels and improve your mood and memory. Holy basil is another one to add to your list — research shows that it can help your mind cope with all kinds of stress, whether it be chemical, physical or emotional, and it can also improve feelings of anxiety and depression. Kirkpatrick tips that licorice tea is another great adrenal support. Aim for one to two cups most days, unless you have high blood pressure.
2. Get creative
“Use this time in isolation to slow down and rediscover an old hobby, like cooking, board games or puzzles — one of the ultimate mindful activities,” says Kirkpatrick. Studies also show that engaging in any form of art-making can have a positive influence on stress levels no matter how good — or bad — you may be.
3. Schedule micro-breaks
“Go for a five-minute walk, call a loved one, pat your pet or try a breathing exercise by inhaling for four counts, holdingfor seven then exhaling for eight and repeating 10 times,” tips Dr Lee. “These practices act as circuit-breakers that help turn off your stress response and switch you to a state of recovery.”
4. Mute phone alerts for a few hours
“Notifications on mobile phones and laptops are all minor stressors,” says Dr Lee. “These alerts alarm your body and increase your cortisol levels. Each one individually isn’t a big stressor, but as the pings sound over and over again, they can keep your cortisol levels chronically elevated.” Try muting alerts for at least a few hours a day.
5. Don’t overdo exercise
Just because you may now have some spare time doesn’t mean you should try to make up for lost time and do three intense workouts a day, as this can raise your cortisol levels. “I recommend a good long walk in addition to an online strength or cardio session,” says Kirkpatrick.
6. Maintain a proper sleep schedule
“Stick to your daily sleep routine and try to avoid late nights, even though you probably don’t have to get up so early anymore,” says Kirkpatrick. Lack of sleep can cause your cortisol levels to stay elevated, so sticking to a regular bedtime can give them a chance to drop off. So find the right balance to help say so-long to stress.
More essential coronavirus reading:
Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.