Can you imagine truly enjoying your life, getting through work with a smile on your face even in the midst of uncertainty and stress? Can you imagine sharing love, compassion and gratitude instead of craving for validation, competing endlessly and despairing for unfulfilled expectations?
It can be done, but there is an essential premise, your ability to control excessive release of the hormone cortisol into your body. When you’re in a traffic jam, your jaws are clenched, your shoulders are tense, and you’re just about to scream… your body is releasing cortisol uncontrollably, impacting negatively your mental and emotional reactions while deteriorating your physical wellbeing.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, located above your kidneys. Cortisol is considered the “stress hormone” because our bodies release it when we’re facing physical, mental or emotional stress.
However, cortisol does much more than reacting to stress. Cortisol is an essential hormone that, among many other vital functions, balances our blood sugar and blood pressure, helps us form memories, decreases inflammation and regulates our metabolism.
Having too much cortisol leads to weight gain, mostly abdominal obesity aka “love handles”, diabetes, heart disease, a weakened immune system, and mental and neurological dysfunction, such as irritability, depression, anxiety and forgetfulness.
Cortisol, Stress and Relaxation Response
When you’re under stress your body goes into “freeze, flight or fight” mode. It does so by releasing excessive amounts of cortisol. This sudden hormone release increases blood sugar so that you have the energy to run from stressors (e.g. a tiger) while shutting down non-essential functions, such as the immune system.
Problems develop when your body is in continuous stress mode, a hallmark of modern life. Over the long term, over-activation of the stress response decreases the overall mental, emotional and physical health.
On the other hand, being able to induce a relaxation response will reduce the cortisol release and stabilize blood levels over short and long periods of time.
Here are 4 simple ways to naturally lower your cortisol levels and achieve sustainable relaxation:
In today’s busy world, we often put sleep on the back burner. We have so many errands to do, so many to-do-lists to cross off. And modern technology definitely doesn’t help. We’re glued to our tablets and computers, and our cell phones are always on… just in case.
But sleep is extremely important. Not only does your body rejuvenate itself, but it also completes major housekeeping duties while you’re asleep.
So, how can you make sure you’re getting enough sleep? Well, for one, you can start by creating the right environment in your bedroom and developing solid going-to- and staying-in-bed routines. Instead of snacking and drinking, have a soothing tea. Instead of crashing into the couch to watch TV, take a walk with your loved ones. Instead of browsing news and social media, read a nice book. You will be surprised at how fast you doze off!
A number of foods have been shown to lower cortisol levels. One example is dark chocolate, rich in flavonols, shown to drive many health benefits. In fact, dark chocolate has even more flavonols than well-known super fruits such as acai berries and blueberries.
Why is this important? Flavonols have been shown to inhibit 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, an enzyme that converts inactive cortisol to its active form.
Look for magnesium-rich foods, avocados, nuts, legumes, bananas and consider taking supplements. In fact, magnesium decreases cortisol levels by supressing the release of cortisol.
On the other hand, processed foods, trans fats, alcohol, food additives are considered pro-inflammatory partly due to the excessive release of cortisol.
Do you ruminate on the past and worry too much about the future? Well, the regular practice of mindful framing, mindfulness meditation or even prayer can help you induce the relaxation response.
When you focus on the present moment, either through observation, visualization, concentration, reciting a prayer or mantra, your mind is repealing negative, repeating and circular thoughts. Your mind becomes non-judgemental, living no room for an automatic stress response.
A mindfulness practice not only helps you mentally but can help you physically by decreasing your cortisol levels. A study conducted on medical students found that cortisol levels dropped almost 20% after a 4 day mindfulness meditation program.
Think you’re too busy for a mindfulness practice? Just take a walk in the park, observe the trees and listen how the birds sing. The good news is that you can easily incorporate these practices into your daily activities, even while washing the dishes or just having a short break!
Socialize and Laugh
You’ve heard people say that laughter is the best medicine, and they’re sure right. Laughter decreases your cortisol levels. And it doesn’t even have to be real laughter to work! Even simulated or “fake” laughter helps.
A study done on community members found that participants’ cortisol levels decreased significantly after a series of laughter yoga sessions. Laughter yoga is a mind-body exercise that teaches you to laugh. The premise is to literally “fake it until you mean it.”
So, go ahead and start laughing. Watch some comedies, play with your loved ones, or even do some laughter yoga. Your body and mind will thank you.
Life is too short to be tense, agitated and stressed out. By naturally lowering your cortisol levels, you improve both the longevity and quality of your life and those around you. Take control of your life, teach your mind and your body how to relax. Start today!