“Stressed” is “desserts” spelled backwards. The astonishing irony is not lost here. Work, finances, health, relationships, are just a few of the many stressors that tend to pile up on our already full plates. As counterintuitive as it may sound, stress is an essential and often unavoidable part of life.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the impact of stress in our lives in definitely increasing. A significantly greater percentage of adults reported experiencing a stress level of 8 or higher regularly on an 10 point scale. Only 18 percent of adults reported this extreme stress in 2014 versus 24 percent in 2015. In 2020, stress impacted a reported 78 percent of Americans. All this stress is impacting our health and our hormones.
What is stress?
Stress, albeit a subjective experience, can be described as how the brain and body respond to a demand or stressor. When experiencing stress, the body switches to “fight or flight” mode. This releases a complex series of chemicals and hormones that prepare the body for physical confrontation or fleeing the scene.
In ancient times, the scene may have unfolded as a woman attacking a ferocious bear with a spear. During this short term physical response heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar are increased, while digestion and immunity are both suppressed. This system was awesome if we needed to react quickly to a dangerous situation.
Fast forward to modern times and although the stressors have changed but our responses have remained the same. Our modern day stressors are often complex and aren’t easily resolved by just running from the threat. So the consequence is that our fight or flight response is “permanently” turned on to help mediate long-term, modern-day stress.
This means our stress hormones are constantly high and this is a major problem. These hormones can increase blood pressure and blood sugar. This also places strain on the cardiovascular system, slow digestion, and weaken the immune system. Therefore, chronic stress plays a large role in the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and the immune system.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is one of these stress hormones, which is produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” It helps to fuel the body’s “fight or flight” response system. Like all hormones, cortisol is a messenger that delivers information about what might be happening outside the body to cells inside the body.
In response to stress, cortisol is released and all non-essential bodily functions are on hold until the stressor passes. Because the body requires as much energy (in the form of blood sugar) as possible, cortisol tells insulin to restrict blood sugar from going into the cells. This triggers the release of stored sugar from the liver. This surge of sugar gives the body energy needed to fight the stressor.
What is insulin?
Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas with a major responsibility of regulating blood sugar. Insulin acts as the “key” needed to unlock a cell so that sugar can enter it. This can be used for energy rather than stay in the bloodstream where it can damage cells.
How does cortisol impact insulin?
When in “fight or flight” mode, cortisol prepares the body by increasing blood sugar to provide an energy source to muscles. To prevent blood sugar from being stored, cortisol slows insulin production. This allows blood sugar to be used immediately. On one hand, cortisol secures quick energy in the form of glucose for the body to use during stressful times. On the other hand, cortisol also reduces the effects of insulin.
As a result, not only are blood sugars elevated but insulin isn’t able to work efficiently. When cortisol levels are chronically elevated, the body remains in an insulin-resistant state. Over time, the pancreas begins to struggle to keep pace with the high demand for insulin. When this happens blood sugars remain elevated, and the cycle can continue putting the body at risk for developing disease. Chronic fatigue, weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders are just a few of the many health problems related to chronically high cortisol levels in the body.
Balancing Cortisol and Insulin Levels
Improving diet and managing stress and other lifestyle factors are the keys to balancing cortisol and insulin levels in the body.
Sleep deprivation or poor quality sleep can impact insulin and cortisol in a few ways. Lack of sleep affects the body’s ability to respond to insulin leading to high blood sugar. Also, inadequate sleep can increase levels of cortisol and in turn lead to insulin resistance. Reducing or eliminating stressors prior to bedtime is a way to ensure adequate and quality sleep. Eliminating screen use, steering clear of work related tasks, and postponing difficult conversations can help with gaining restful sleep. Ideally, most people need around seven or more uninterrupted hours of sleep per night to restore hormone balance.
The benefits of exercise are extensive and far reaching. From managing stress, improved sleep, balancing hormones, and balancing blood sugar, it’s no wonder this is often a first line of defense for many health related issues. Exercising temporarily increases cortisol production, but also allows for a swift decrease afterward. This ensures that next time your stress hormones rise, your body’s ability to adjust cortisol levels becomes more efficient and restoring improved balance.
Whole, real foods (low glycemic index)
Shifting focus onto whole, unprocessed, real, low glycemic index foods can help balance insulin and cortisol levels. Processed foods also tend to be higher on the glycemic index. Higher glycemic index foods spike blood sugars more dramatically. This places stress on the pancreas to produce more insulin, leading to insulin resistance, and diabetes down the road. Consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, seeds, lean protein, legumes, and healthy fats can stabilize blood sugar control and cortisol levels in the body.
Life stressor are often times out of our control, however, the ways in which we react to stress is something we can control. Research has shown that practicing meditation and/or mindfulness, even in short segments throughout the day can decrease cortisol levels, improve heart health, and strengthen the immune system. Practicing deep breathing exercises throughout the day can also stimulate the body’s natural relaxation response and restore hormone balance.
While there’s no running from the myriad of modern day stressors that people are bombarded with daily, there are many ways to combat increased cortisol and insulin levels that contribute to many diseases related to stress