Stress And Cortisol Levels, Part 2
The Better Life Experts | February 24, 2009

Stress is Not All Bad
Bear in mind that an appropriate stress response is a healthy and necessary part of life. One of the things it does is to release norepinephrine, one of the principal excitatory neurotransmitters. Norepinephrine is needed to create new memories and it improves mood. Problems feel more like challenges rather than threats, which in turn encourages creative thinking that stimulates your brain to develop a more complex network of neural connections. Stress management is the key, not stress elimination. The challenge for us today is to not let the sympathetic nervous system stay chronically aroused. This may require knowledge of techniques that work to activate your relaxation response.

To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from overreacting to stress in the first place.

Maintaining healthier cortisol levels
The following have been found by many to be very helpful in relaxing the body and mind, aiding the body in maintaining healthy cortisol levels:
  • Guided Imagery
  • Journaling
  • Self-Hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Listening to Music
  • Breathing Exercises
  • Meditation
  • Sex
Cortisol secretion varies among individuals. Whether or not a particular individual's stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. One person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite. But people also differ from one another biologically, causing differences in their response to stress. While there's no evidence that the increased cortisol produced by a healthy individual under stress is enough to cause weight gain, studies have shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress tend to eat more food, and food that is higher in carbohydrates than people who secrete less cortisol. Weight gain or loss is dependent on a number of factors including resting metabolic rate, food intake, amount of exercise, and even the types of food consumed and the times of day food is consumed. Genetic factors also likely influence our metabolism and may explain some people's tendency to gain or lose weight more rapidly than others.

Differences between men and women in response to stress
One of the most basic behavioral differences between men and women is how they respond to stress. UCLA researchers found that men often react to stress with a "fight-or-flight" response, but women are more likely to manage their stress with a "tend-and-befriend" response. According to psychology professor and lead researcher Shelley E. Taylor, men are more vulnerable to the adverse health effects of stress. Men are more likely than women to develop "certain stress-related disorders, including hypertension, aggressive behavior, or abuse of alcohol or hard drugs”. Taylor states that the tend-and-befriend regulatory pattern probably not only reduced women’s stress levels, but had survival value since it focused her attention on protecting her offspring during a threatening situation.

Professor Taylor also studied the effect of stress on the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin, a hormone secreted in both men and women in response to stress, has been shown to calm rats and humans, making them less anxious and more social. In several animal species, oxytocin leads to maternal behavior and to affiliation. However, while the female hormone estrogen amplifies the effect of oxytocin, male hormones seem to reduce the effect. This difference provides further support for the “fight-or-flight” vs. “tend-and-befriend” theory of gender differences in response to stress, with men being less likely to develop the type of social alliances that result from nurturing social contacts.

Strategies to Help Reduce Stress Levels
As mentioned above, we do not want to get rid of stress altogether, but we do want to keep it within healthy, manageable limits as much as possible. The most sensible ways to do this are to watch what we eat, get regular exercise, and use techniques that remove us from our stressful environment (even temporarily). Think of your stress level as the rain in a rain barrel. If your level of rain (stress) is always right at the rim of the barrel, it won’t take much stress at all to make you feel like you are overwhelmed. Only a few changes in your lifestyle can lower your level of stress (rain) enough so that you can cope more easily the next time unexpected stressors come along.

  1. Psychological Review, American Psychological Association, July 2000.
  2. Peeke PM, Chrousos GP. Hypercortisolism and Obesity. Ann NY Acad Sci 1995 Dec 29; 771:665-76.
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