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Mary's Moments Blog Post

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

In our fast-paced lives, stress seems to be common for many of us. Whether it's the pressure from work, financial worries, or personal challenges, stress can take a toll on our mental and physical health. At the heart of the stress response is a hormone you might have heard of: cortisol. Often termed the "stress hormone," cortisol plays a crucial role in managing how our bodies and minds respond to stress. However, when it's constantly in overdrive, cortisol can wreak havoc on our well-being.

What is it?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys. In normal circumstances, it's vital for helping the body manage stress, regulate blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and assist in metabolism. It’s supposed to help us wake up in the morning and give us that necessary boost to escape danger: "fight or flight" response.

The issue begins when cortisol levels remain elevated over an extended period. This can happen due to chronic stress from various sources like ongoing pressures at work, family disputes, caregiving or other personal issues. When your body is in a constant state of alert, cortisol production doesn't turn off, leading to numerous health problems.

The Mental:

Cortisol can significantly impact mental health. High levels of this hormone can lead to anxiety, depression, and mood swings. It can also cause difficulties in concentrating and memory, often referred to as "brain fog." When you’re stressed all the time, you might find yourself feeling nervous or down without fully understanding why.

The Physical:

Physically, prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can be just as damaging. It can lead to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen, increased blood pressure, and can even disrupt sleep patterns, making it hard to get a restorative night's sleep. Over time, these issues do not just affect your quality of life but can also increase the risk of serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

The cycle of stress and high cortisol can begin with any chronic stressor or lifestyle factors that keep your body in a heightened state of stress. It could start with something as typical as trying to meet relentless deadlines at work, enduring long-term relationship issues, or dealing with financial instability.

Recognizing these triggers is the first step in managing the levels. Dealing with the persistent effects of high cortisol has been a deeply personal and challenging journey for me. Each day, I wrestle with a sense of sluggishness that seems to weigh down my every step. The mirror reflects a version of myself that I barely recognize, as significant weight gain has crept in over time.

The physical discomfort extends to my joints, where inflammation has settled deeply, particularly in my knees, evolving into arthritis. Most days, I'm far from feeling well, yet I find myself pushing through, summoning reserves I didn't know I had. From the surface all appears fine but this journey through high cortisol's impact isn't just a battle against physical symptoms; it's a daily striving to find balance and wellness.  We have all heard the list of strategies below for combatting stress. 

1. Mindfulness and Meditation: One effective way to combat stress and reduce cortisol is through mindfulness and meditation. These practices help center your thoughts and calm your mind, reducing the stress response. Even a few minutes a day can make a significant difference.

2. Regular Exercise: Physical activity is a powerful stress reducer. It helps use up excess cortisol and also boosts production of endorphins, the body's natural mood elevators. This doesn’t mean you need to run marathons; even a daily walk or a quick yoga session can help balance your cortisol levels.

3. Proper Sleep: Since cortisol can disrupt sleep, it's vital to focus on good sleep hygiene. This means establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a restful environment, and perhaps most importantly, winding down properly before bedtime.

4. Healthy Diet: What you eat can also influence cortisol. Diets high in refined sugars and unhealthy fats can increase cortisol levels, whereas eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can help keep cortisol in check.

5. Connect with Others: Social support is vital for managing stress. Talking to friends, sharing your troubles, and spending time with loved ones can help decrease cortisol levels.

6. Professional Help: Sometimes, the best way to tackle high cortisol is with the help of a professional. Therapists and counselors can offer strategies and treatments to manage stress better and reduce its impact on your life.

Some stress is a normal part of life; however, when it becomes constant, taking proactive steps to manage your stress and thus your cortisol levels is crucial. While we can't always control the stressors in our lives, we can control how we respond to them. By incorporating stress-reduction strategies into our daily routine, we can not only reduce the levels but also improve our overall quality of life.

What to do when the relentless demands of caregiving or work leave little room for lengthy stress-reduction routines? Find quick, effective methods.  One powerful tool I use is deep breathing. It’s incredible how just a few minutes of focused, deep breathing can significantly calm your mind. It involves simply taking slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.  You can do this anywhere, at any time.

Stress often starts with some seemingly minor symptoms, like headaches or trouble sleeping. You might notice your heart racing more often or that you’re feeling unusually irritable and anxious. Over time, these small signals can escalate into persistent fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or even digestive issues. If left unchecked, the constant strain on your body from stress can lead to more serious health problems. High blood pressure, heart disease, and a weakened immune system can all show up, making us more vulnerable to frequent illnesses and chronic health conditions.

I can say from personal experience, the toll stress takes can be quite scary – especially when illnesses set in and there aren’t any clear diagnosis or plan of action to combat it.  The effects are not just physical either; it can affect your mental health too.

Our home is a vibrant hub of love, thanks to the unique personalities that fill its rooms. My husband brings a dynamic and spontaneous energy that keeps our life interesting and full of surprises. His zest for life is infectious, often turning ordinary moments into memorable adventures. Our adult children, who visit often with my grandson and grandpuppy, bring love and laughter, reenergizing our space. My neurodiverse daughter’s spirit and resilience inspire us every day. And my mother, living with us, adds a layer of warmth and love that only a grandparent can provide.

Each person enriches our family dynamic in their own way. However, navigating the different personalities and needs can sometimes be a balancing act. Our home is very busy and requires patience, understanding, and a lot of open communication especially when you take all of the above somedays and turn it upside down. While embracing these moments of ups and downs, we do have a very loving household.

The balancing act sometimes does falter and, being human, I have triggers.  Learning to notice them in advance is the key.  At times, I need to just take a step back in the moments of high stress, close my eyes for a few seconds for those deep breaths and I can feel my whole body relax by just breathing. 

Other times, the family will attest that I just hit a wall and need to lay on the couch awhile.  There is nothing wrong with taking a time out.  It may not be a specific stressor in that moment but rather a build up over hours or even days from things totally irrelevant to the present moment when you just hit that point and you need to reset.

Another go to of mine for stress relief is mindfulness—where I focus entirely on the present or tuning into my senses (thinking of the dish soap on my hands as I wash dishes or focusing on my breathing patterns) —it’s almost like a zoning out moment.  But it also provides a quick reset for my mind.  A short walk during a break, or listening to a soothing song, can disrupt the stress cycle and helps maintain mental balance. These small practices can be lifesavers in high-pressure moments.

Stress-reduction strategies can take a bit of practice, and it might feel challenging at first to fit them into your busy routine. It’s completely normal for new habits to take time to take hold. But once you start feeling the benefits—like more calmness, less fatigue, and improved overall well-being—you'll likely find yourself motivated to make these practices a priority. Even in the busiest of days, taking a few moments for deep breathing, a quick walk, or a moment of mindfulness can make a huge difference. Over time, it can become second nature, an invaluable go to for managing stress whenever it arises. 

Managing stress is a constant work in progress for me. I'm always learning more about what works and what doesn't. I've gathered a toolbox of strategies over time; however, there are days when old habits sneak back in, and I find myself reacting impulsively to stress instead of responding calmly. This usually doesn't help the situation and can make me feel like I'm losing ground. Caregiving 24/7 in addition to balancing other family and home obligations is an extensive responsibility, and it naturally intensifies the stress I experience.  But I've learned to be gentle with myself in those tough moments. It's okay.

Each day offers a new chance to try to handle things a little better, and I hold onto that as I navigate through the ups and downs.  Through it all, I'm learning to be kinder to myself, recognizing that managing stress isn't about perfection, but about striving for balance and well-being each day.

While cortisol is essential for helping us manage stress, too much of it can lead to a range of mental and physical health problems. Hopefully by understanding how it works and trying some strategies to manage stress levels, we can protect our health and create a more balanced life.

Taking care of ourselves is not a luxury—it’s an absolute necessity.



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