No one can escape it.
It’s a human, and hormonal, response.
These days “stress” seems to be inescapable, and, even, virtual. In modern times, we may not be running scared for our lives from lions and tigers, but our brains can perceive Facebook as just as fatal! In fact, studies show that a quick scan through a social media account, or, even an unexpected “urgent” work email can cause cortisol to spike, blood sugar to rise, and adrenaline to pulsate through our veins in a flash of a second. (source, source, source, source)
As a naturopathic and functional medicine doctor, it isn’t my job to erase “stress” from someone’s life; however, I do help my clients manage, respond, and perceive it in a more balanced way.
In this post, I will explore the problems with long-term hikes in cortisol levels and chronic stress. I will then share some natural ways to mitigate these issues.
In a follow-up article, I will discuss specific essential oils that have been demonstrated to lower cortisol, relieve stress and anxiety, and revitalize overall vitality.
Cortisol is Not the Enemy, but Can Overstay Its Welcome
Cortisol, AKA the stress hormone, has gotten a very bad rap. Recently, it has been deemed “public enemy number 1.” However, it is important to realize we need cortisol. For instance, it helps t to keep inflammation at bay and allows us to utilize the fuel we need to run from that lion (or nasty tweet).
The following excerpt from WebMD provides an easy summary regarding why we need cortisol, but in balance:
It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, but cortisol plays an important role in a number of things your body does. For example, it:
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeps inflammation down
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward
So, it’s not that we need to get rid of it, but our body needs to be able to recover from its effect and reinstate rejuvenation and recovery.
In other words, we need to be more like, well, Zebras.
The Zen of Zebras and How It Relates to Cortisol
Zebras are pretty Zen, at least in the sense of living life through intuition and remaining overall very calm. We may wonder, how could they be so chill? They graze in the grass peacefully, yet they know death could be lurking around the corner at every waterhole.
It seems these magnificent beasts have an impressive, yet arguably non-compassionate, way of handling stress recovery.
After escaping being the main course of a tiger’s dinner, they return to their wanderings and rituals as if nothing occurred at all. They are instantly back in the moment and have no problems sleeping that night. It seems they have an innate acceptance of how things work in their universe and have made peace with it.
It’s why these “striped horses” don’t get ulcers.
Although humans can’t be that detached, we can use tools to recover quicker and perhaps take heed in the wisdom of the zebra’s perspective of acceptance.
The Constant Barrage of Human Stress
The challenge many are facing to live a life of a “Zen Zebra” is that today, we are getting a spike in stress almost hourly, or more. Whether it is by peering at an Apple watch, comparing Facebook selfies with celebrities, and/or emails overstuffing our inbox, our society is on alert 24-7. Many can’t sleep as a result of this overstimulation. This makes the ability to recover minimal and the resultant risk for health concerns rises.
Cortisol and melatonin are usually in sync based on circadian rhythm. Cortisol peaks in the morning to wake us and melatonin rises at night to help us enter slumberland. With the constant rise in cortisol, our natural rhythm is disturbed. Besides not getting all the physical and hormonal benefits of sleep, we also lose out on the antioxidant support and gut-healing properties of melatonin to prevent those ulcers that are non-existent in Zebra world. (source, source, source, source, source, source)
This constant stress can create other physical havoc and hormonal imbalance. Chronic rise in cortisol and stress hormones can lead to downregulation of your immune system and inflammatory response. It also can lead to a decrease in progesterone and estrogen, which also impacts bone healing. In the article, Low on Progesterone? Why Stress Reduction Might Be the Only Way to Hack It, the author explains this interaction:
Progesterone is synthesized fairly early in the hormonal cascade, and it’s activity is highly influenced by the level of stress–either physical or emotional–a woman is experiencing. I wrote about this in a post about a year ago, titled “The HPA axis: what is pregnenolone steal?”
Another name for pregnenolone steal is as progesterone steal.
Pregnenolone is the primary “precursor” hormone. It sits at the top of the domino chain and is directed to be used by the body however it sees fit. The primary decision the body makes with pregnenolone is whether it wants to make sex hormones like progesterone or stress hormones like cortisol.
If a woman is stressed, her body “steals” the pregnenolone and uses it for stress hormone production instead of progesterone production. This means that other female hormones also take a hit — accounting for why some women have low hormone levels across the board — but progesterone is one of the hardest hit. If a woman has low progesterone in her labs, it’s a pretty good bet that her body is using her resources to produce cortisol rather than progesterone.
For this reason, reducing stress is actually the only clinically well-known way to increase progesterone production.
I discussed how intricate hormonal balance is and why lifestyle, dietary, and other caveats and factors are imperative to assess and consider before trying to tweak with mother nature by introducing exogenous hormones. Lathering on progesterone cream may be helpful for mitigating the excess cortisol ratio. For some, manipulating hormones may also be a crutch for a bit to avoid having to quite a stressful job or to really look at one’s dysfunctional relationship, but it could create long-term unwanted effects if not done responsibly and appropriately. (Click here to read more about a whole person approach to hormonal balance.)
Thankfully, simple changes such as exercise, mindfulness, laughter, social connection, and listening to your favorite tunes can help mitigate negative effects of stress and lower cortisol. Of course, sniffing your favorite essential oil can also produce an instantaneous soothing response as well. We’ll dive into that next.
Summary on Cortisol, Stress, Hormones, and Health
Our body needs a delicate balance of hormones. They exist in an intricate milieu. Today’s society has us on alert at all hours of the day. This is causing sleep disruption, lack of recovery from the day’s stress, and hormonal imbalance. Long-term consequences of excess stress hormones, and lack of sleep, can cause and contribute to many health problems. Using lifestyle practices for self-care and nourishment, as well as unplugging, can help to mitigate some of the negative effects.
In an upcoming article, I’ll discuss how essential oils can help as well!
Listener Alert- The Woman’s Infradian Rhythm!
Women are not “little men.”
Please listen to “Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage by Harnessing the Power of Your Infradian Rhythm with Alisa Vitti from Broken Brain.” You will then understand the differences in how women need to nurture themselves based on their monthly cycle and and how what works for men, may not work for women.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
For additional safety and medical information, visit my essential oils database. It includes a full category on how to use essential oils safely and potential drug interactions that can occur.
Please be extra cautious and be sure to check with your doctor if you have a seizure disorder. The Epilepsy Society of the UK lists certain essential oils implicated for their antiseizure effect as well as those that have stimulating properties.
If you and/or your physician are interested in consulting with me to assist with supporting the integration of essential oils safely into a therapeutic protocol, essential oils consultations are available.