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What’s the Deal with Cortisol?

Colin Cook

Most people have heard of cortisol as the stress hormone. It is manufactured by your adrenal glands, and one of its primary purposes is to heighten your alertness and make you ready for action. When you perceive danger, your adrenal glands release cortisol into your bloodstream and your hypothalamus and pituitary gland sense the increase. At a certain point, your body may go into high alert, which means it shuts down vital functions — digestion, reproduction, immune response, and growth processes — in order to ensure that most of your resources are allocated to fight or flight.

It’s a beautiful system when you think about it. If you’re confronted with a mugger or a bear, it’s not a good time to waste energy on long-term concerns. You really need to concentrate everything you’ve got on dealing with the immediate threat. When the threat is past, then your heart rate and blood pressure can return to normal, and your body can go back to attending to the support functions that contribute to your long-term health.

There is a problem, however, in that immediate threats like muggers and bears are not the only threats we face in life. Some of us feel as if we have been under constant threat for the past several years. Climate change, constitutional crises, and mass murders don’t go away. What happens if you’re under constant threat? If the threat doesn’t go away, the cortisol doesn’t go away, and you end up with a surplus of cortisol in your system. According to WebMD, excess cortisol can lead to

    • anxiety and depression
    • headaches
    • heart disease
    • memory and concentration problems
    • problems with digestion
    • insomnia
    • weight gain
    • muscle weakness
    • diabetes.

If you don’t want to suffer from these problems, you need to control your fight-or-flight response by taking steps to cut stress. WebMD advises

    • eat well, exercise, and get lots of sleep
    • get a massage
    • spend time outside
    • meet up with friends
    • find ways to help others in your community
    • take up a hobby
    • try deep breathing, yoga, or meditation
    • laugh.

Those are great tips, and I recommend them as long-term survival strategies for the modern world. A few weeks of following those tips, and you will de-stress your body. But what should you do if you need to de-stress immediately? There’s a technology for that: floatation REST. REST is an acronym for restricted environmental stimulation therapy — what we at Peak Recovery & Health Center call float pod. Thomas Fine and Roderick Borrie, in their article, “Floatation REST in Applied Psychophysiology,” summarized research in which they found a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension during floatation REST, effects which persisted after the session was over. Furthermore, they found a decrease in stress mediating hormones, particularly cortisol, during the sessions. They also found the cortisol reduction to persist between floatation REST sessions, which they suggest could mean that REST actually resets the hormone to a more healthy level.

My advice is organize your lifestyle around the tips provided by WebMD to de-stress and protect your body from the ill effects of excess cortisol. But to get started on your new de-stressed life, let me suggest booking a series of float pod sessions at Peak Recovery & Health Center. Stress relief and cortisol reduction could be just one session away.

Image: “Acute Stress Disorder” by Benjamin Watson. Creative Commons license.