Fitness Magazine

Cortisol, Stress and Yoga

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Cortisol and Good Health
by Baxter

Cortisol, Stress and Yoga

Fallen Tree by Brad Gibson


We have mentioned one of the body’s important hormones, cortisol, on these pages a few times in the recent past, but always with the slant of it somehow being a problem child, a bad actor, a rotten apple, as it were. But cortisol, when it is working in harmony with a well-balanced body and mind, is part of a elegant system that tries to help us respond in the best way possible to short term stressful situations that are bound to arise in our daily lives. So on a daily basis, during the early morning hours - around 4-5am, the body releases a bit of cortisol to get your inner furnace ready for the first foot hitting the floor in the morning. It releases a bit of sugar into the blood stream, sends a bit more blood to the brain and heart, and really gets us ready for action, however mellow or intense our morning will be. Then, if the day is relatively uneventful, the level of cortisol gradually diminishes to its lowest levels around 10pm.
When released in response to unexpected stressful events, it has many more helpful roles to play. It has a strong anti-inflammatory effect, which is helpful with acute injury, so it can act like a fire truck when the body’s immune response to infection is too strong by decreasing the life span and production of one of our white blood cells known as Lymphocytes. Basically, it tries to keep a balanced approach to infections.
Cortisol has an effect on the cardio-vascular (CV) system by controlling the smooth muscles in the walls of our arteries. In normal circumstances, this allows cortisol to help boost our blood pressure in the short run when we need extra work from the CV system. It has effects on the central nervous system (CNS), too, influencing behavior, mood, excitability, and the electrical activity of neurons. When we put all that together, cortisol is designed to respond to stress by providing fuel in the form of glucose, mobilizing fat and proteins for back-up fuel supply, modifying the immune response, heartbeat, blood pressure, brain alertness and the response of the nervous system to get us through the rough spots.
The cool thing about cortisol is that is has evolved to enhance the body’s response to stress while also protecting from excessive response to stress.  The key thing about the place that produces cortisol, the adrenal glands, is that they need time to recover after stressful events have passed. And herein lies the rub!  If we give the body some time to recover between stressful events, the adrenal glands can do their job well, cortisol levels are adequate to the demands of the body, and you stay healthy and ready for the next stressful event.
But if you are either under constant stress, or your mind is prone to brooding about the past or anxious musings about the future or even negative assessments about the present moment, your adrenals interpret this as an actual stressful event occurring right now, and cortisol gets released into your system. So cortisol levels remain high in the blood stream for greater periods of time, which can result in swelling of the gland itself, and an increased chance of the following negative effects: loss of immunity secondary to shrinkage of lymph glands, increased risk of stomach ulcers, increased risk of hypertension, heart disease and other vascular disorders, excess sugar in the blood stream and more chance of developing diabetes. Not a good outlook! 
And as I mentioned last week, chronic stress depletes your supply of cortisol and can steal the building blocks of your sex hormones (Yoga and Male Menopause), thus negatively impacting your sexual function and your reproductive capacity. What’s a yogi to do? 

Cortisol, Stress and Yoga

Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Cobbler's Pose)

The good news is that your regular yoga practice, if it includes those much needed restorative poses, yoga nidras (Yoga Nidra and Deep Relaxation), long guided meditations and generous Savasanas, should be the perfect balancing act for keeping the adrenals healthy and the cortisol cycle in synch with your changing needs. One fact that might influence your asana and even your exercise regimen is that aerobic or effortful exercise (and some forms of yoga definitely fit the bill) can cause a release of cortisol to deal with the short term “stress” of the increased physical effort. If you work out or do asana in the morning, when there is still a bit of cortisol around from the 4 am release, the effects of the brief elevation are minimal. However, a late day work out could be theoretically more problematic, with a negative effect on sleep patterns as one possible side effect. So I would recommend active workouts and asana for the morning, and restorative practices in the evening if you want or need to do something later in the day.
So remember, cortisol is a good guy just trying to do its job. It’s the stress and our reactions to it that are really the culprits. Fortunately, we have the technology to neutralize this threat to our healthy aging! 

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