It may come as a surprise that stress can actually serve as a motivator that pushes people to achieve their greatest potential. At times when I have a fast-approaching deadline on an upcoming project, I tend to feel my stress level increase, but at the same time, I’m more motivated to get it done, especially when I see the progress that I’ve made.
However, stress can be a double-edged sword that can easily harm your body if you don’t manage it well and leave you feeling depressed and hopeless.
We all experience chronic stress to some degree. It can be caused by factors such as school, career, finances, personal relationships, or other stressful events. During the last few months, I’ve personally experienced chronic stress due to many factors, including the unknown of when my gym and health practice will be able to open up again, when I will have a paycheck, when I can give my employees their job back, accumulating debt, etc. due to the pandemic. I could go on, but in times like these, I remind myself- stress can legitimately shorten my lifespan, and destroy my quality of life.
That statement is completely valid, and sadly, most people are experiencing higher amounts of stress than ever. Prescribing data shows that our stress is at an all-time high and anti-anxiety prescription medications have increased by over 30% since the start of the pandemic. Health professionals warn patients that chronic stress is unhealthy and only serves to damage our physical and psychological health, but rarely does your doctor prescribe stress-relieving habits to resolve your problems instead of a prescription. This seems even crazier to me when data also show that 70-90% of all primary care doctor visits are due to stress-related problems!
The question to ask yourself is how do you know when you have reached a point of unhealthy amounts of stress, so you can take measures to resolve it. One answer lies in our gut health by taking a look at cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.”
What is Cortisol?
Hydrocortisone or Cortisol is a hormone created in the adrenal glands. Depending on the cells it is interacting with, it plays many roles in our bodies including 
- Control your blood sugar levels…and in turn energy and mood
- Regulate metabolism…and in turn digestion and fat storage
- Influence blood pressure
- Control the body’s salt and water balance.
Although Cortisol is considered anti-inflammatory when you experience high levels of physical or emotional stress, your immune system becomes “resistant” and instead increases inflammation drastically. 
How Does Cortisol Affect My Overall Health?
Cortisol is most helpful when you face acute stress, such as when you’re startled or surprised. The released cortisol hormones inflame your immune system to give you extra-strength to give you the opportunity to fight or flight. In a normal state, you might not be motivated to react at all.
As we ‘grow up,’ it seems that we are surrounded by more stress factors than ever before. We feel like we are expected to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and work longer hours, pay ever-increasing bills, and balance quality time with our families. With high levels of continued stress, our body can experience high inflammation levels that can put us at a higher risk of infection or sickness. 
High levels of cortisol can also lead to many other factors that can harm your health, including:
- Fatigue throughout the day that also disrupts your sleep cycle.
- Increased appetite and weight gain.
- Irregular periods, and trouble conceiving 
- Adrenal and thyroid problems and autoimmune disease
If you don’t have enough cortisol, although rare, you could also experience some negative side effects, including fatigue, dizziness, weight loss, or skin darkening. It’s important to find a good balance to avoid any negative side effects.
How Does Cortisol Impair Gut Health?
High levels of cortisol in your bloodstream can have adverse effects on your gut and digestive tract. An excess amount of cortisol can eat away at the intestinal barrier and result in leaky gut syndrome (LGS), a condition where the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, creating an opening for undigested toxins to leak into the bloodstream. See our LGS article for more information on that!
How Do I Combat High Cortisol Levels?
Ever feel much better after a workout?! It’s important to note that higher-intensity workouts will increase cortisol levels short term but will remain low for the rest of the day. On the other hand, moderate exercise sessions will yield similar results without the initial spike of cortisol after intense training.  Incorporate moderate exercise like a weight training session, moderate yoga flow, or power walk into your routine to avoid spiking your cortisol levels every day.
Love to doodle? Well, you’re in luck because there are some stress-relieving benefits in that too. Art therapy can be a great way to help relieve stress, and anyone can benefit from it.
A recent study at Drexel University showed that 75% of people who participate in a 45-minute creative activity have significantly lower cortisol levels than those who don’t. So take out a sketchbook, break out an instrument, or make a craft with your kids.
Deep Breathing and Meditation
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, have been proven to reduce cortisol levels. In fact, one study showed that middle-aged women who participate in exercises saw a reduction of cortisol levels up to 50%.  I always start my day off with a breathing/priming regimen that I devised to increase sustained focus, increase oxygen content to my body for energy, and even fold in my morning gratitude and goal visualization. You can join me here. Tai chi, yoga, and massage therapy are also effective ways to lower your stress levels.
Take Action To Increase Your Gut Health and Lower Cortisol Levels
Whether you check every box for a high-stress life or merely worry excessively from time to time, understanding the composition of gut health is imperative. So check out all of my amazing blogs on Gut Health, or join our course, which includes my morning breathing/priming. In this course, you will learn how to further control cortisol imbalances as well as remedy major gut dysfunction through contributors such as diet and antibiotics. Stress hormones such as cortisol are only one factor that can lead to gut dysfunction and subsequent serious sickness. Identifying and removing these factors negatively affecting your gut is the first step towards repairing and recovery.
Join the online gut healing: 30-day repair led by Alli Barnes (exercise physiologist, nutritionist, and health coach) today! Call us at (857) 267-2107 if you have any questions about enrollment or course information.
 (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/\
[2/3] Myers, A. (2019, October 08). Is Stress Damaging Your Gut? Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.amymyersmd.com/2017/02/stress-damaging-gut/
[4/8] Thorpe, M. (n.d.). 11 Natural Ways to Lower Your Cortisol Levels. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-lower-cortisol
 (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/
 Publishing, H. (n.d.). Exercising to relax. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
 At any skill level, making art reduces stress hormones. (2016, June 15). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160615134946.htm