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Russell’s Sunday Sermon: What You Need to Know About Cortisol

13
Nov

Russell’s Sunday Sermon: What You Need to Know About Cortisol

I’ve had better weeks.

It began with the thing I didn’t see coming, don’t want to talk about and now can’t seem to avoid. Then, I found out that my dream job advises one of nonselection via email at 2230 on a Thursday night (never fun being told you weren’t good enough). I’ll end the week with my Grandfather’s wake, in Laramie, WY – which requires 6 hours behind the wheel, split between Friday after work and an early rise Saturday morning. Work has been a meat-grinder. This semester of graduate school sucks horrendously. I’ll need to learn a second – or third, language to even approach having the appropriate selection of profanities to describe it effectively.

I’m trying to find the silver lining and the good news. I’m struggling. Quite seriously.

My back has been hurt all week. Some of my friends are hurt, too. Mentally, physically, emotionally. The world is a crazy place. I’m so stressed – mentally, physically, emotionally, existentially, that even my perception of the world and events around me grow contorted at times. Everything is viewed and filtered through such a pessimistic lens.

Aaarrrggghhh.

This perpetual state of arousal cannot be healthy. There comes a point when it becomes too fucking much for too fucking long. However, the perpetul suck of it all gives us an opening to talk about physiology. You know how I love to comingle physiology and philosophy.

The zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex produces the glucocorticoid steroid hormone cortisol in response to low blood sugar, stress and in certain pathological states (Cushing Disease). The hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone, which signals the anterior pituitary to then release adrenocorticotropic-releasing hormone, which enters the vascular circulation, eventually making its way to the adrenal glands where it inspires the zona fasciculata to secrete cortisol into systemic circulation.

Commonly thought of as “the stress hormone”, cortisol is part of the sympathetic nervous system response to stress. When the bear is attacking you, cortisol is useful because it mobilizes glucose for energy and suppresses bodily functions that do not immediately contribute to your successful evasion of the bear. Cortisol stimulates glycogenolysis (turning stored sugar into mobile, useable sugar), gluconeogenesis – mobilizing protein, fat and carbohydrate as glucose – all of which elevates blood sugar and provides energy for activities associated with bear escape. Cortisol suppresses the immune system and the inflammatory response necessary for healing.

If the bear is chasing you, cortisol is great and just might help you to survive.

But if your cortisol levels are chronically elevated by stress – physical, emotional, etc. then all of the things which help you get away from the bear contribute to your eventual destruction. My eventual destruction. I think that is where I am right now. Cortisol mobilizes glucose in your blood, which is great if your blood sugar is low, but if you’ve been stress-eating because life fucking sucks, then it adds to the blood sugar you’ve already elevated through diet.

Great.

Cortisol increases the retention of sodium and the excretion of potassium – this is great for your blood pressure and cardiac function. Increasing blood pressure with sodium at the same time you’re shedding an electrolyte that is essential to cardiac function, potassium, through all the stressful years of adulthood, can become problematic, don’t you agree? Acutely, you don’t want to be hypotensive when the bear is chasing you, but when the bear you are fleeing is right in front of your face at work – all day, every day, and he never leaves, this shit adds up. The electrolyte imbalance is fine for short periods if it helps you escape from bears. However, when maintained for a span of years, the inhibited healing, chronically elevated arousal states, increased blood pressure, increased blood sugar, impaired osteogenesis (bone formation) through impaired calcium absorption – there is a whole retinue of eventual negative effects from this protracted state of affairs… These things aren’t correlated with a state of health and well-being.

Fucking cortisol.

I am red-lined and have been for too many years.

The internet is a magnificent repository of information for research, contemplation and cat pictures. It is also a reminder that more people use it for the cat pictures than the alternatives. With unlimited information humanity continually grows ever more fucktarded. But ideas for decreasing cortisol are out there. Perhaps cat pictures may actually achieve this effect?

How do I get off this rollercoaster?

Sleep is a great start, but the inhibition, corruption and destruction of sleep and normal sleep patterns are part of the causative process in this chronically elevated sympathetic nervous response in the first place. I can offer, from the perspective of a person very intimately acquainted with sleep disturbance, that sleep can be a very challenging place to begin. Something else has to give first, though increased sleep is a fantastic palliative for stress. Sleep both decreases stress and is inhibited by stress. What a viscious circle.

Meditation is frequently mentioned as a tactic for finding calm, and shifting the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous response toward the restive and restorative functions of the parasympathetic. Stesha Gulick has been writing on this subject extensively. She may be on to something. Check out some of what she’s said. I suspect I’ll be getting to say “I knew her when” one of these days, but for now I’m just going to casually sit back, listen and pick up a thing or two every once in a while.

Music can be both excitatory and inhibitory. And it may vary person-to-person. I do not find heavy metal soothing, generally. I may enjoy it, but probably only as it amps me up, rather than calms me down. Find what works for you. Zoning out and singing along with something in the car might help dial life down a skosh.

If you know someone who is funny or makes you laugh, laughter is beneficial for cortisol reduction. I regularly go hunting for movies on Amazon or Netflix that will make me laugh, though the good, old-fashioned belly laughs are harder to come by these days. I enjoy some really twisted, stupid, B-rated comedy. I revel in stupid humor.

Get. A. Massage. I’m actually thinking that I may follow this advice in the very near future. Even my chiropractor mentioned that I’m wound like a pulled bowstring and what really might help me as much as anything would be a very good working over at the hands of a massage therapist. I think he may be on to something. The problem with massage is that it is easily perceived as a very excessively priced extravagance. But there is a place for it and it works. As these words are most likely being read first by members of Beartooth Crossfit, I’m sure you may acknowledge the benefit of massage on tight muscles and, thereby, athletic performance.

Religious practice reduces cortisol. The calm, restive peace that comes with the practice of faith is restoring and impacts cortisol levels. I’ll admit, and some of you may know – I’m not a terribly religious person. I may offer and speculate that some of the benefits in this category could mirror, to some extent, those found above under “meditation”. If you are a religious person, get in touch with your deity. Say “hi”. Close your eyes and pray.

Physical stress elevates cortisol. Brutal gym workouts – and a relentless assault thereof, incite and contribute to elevated cortisol. Exercise is good for you, yes – and may reduce cortisol, but an excess creates a chronic state of damage and stress from which you do not recover well. Recovery is then impacted by the cortisol you are releasing in the eternal gym rat race without the provision of the appropriate opportunity for recovery. Sometimes it is ok to just maintain your health and not push forward at the expense of it.

When the cure becomes the disease.

How do we fix this? What needs to be done? Life sucks and there are too many things that are beyond our control. Tyler Durden tells us to “Just. Let. Go.” “Quit trying to control everything.” “Let the chips fall where they may.” That is good advice, sort of. Perhaps not to the nihilist extremes embraced by Mr. Durden (I actually perceive “Fight Club” to be a Buddhist, rather than nihilist text – Siddhārtha Gautama, not Friedriche Nietzsche). Sometimes life just happens and we have to loosen our visceral connection to things that do not matter or are beyond our control.

Even we really, super busy people can carve 15 minutes out of a day to sit down and just BE – to sit, breathe and just EXIST. Meditation doesn’t have to be profound, complicated or complex. Get a subscription to Spotify and jam out to your favorite tunes. Drink some black tea. A British study claimed that black tea consumption lowered cortisol among test subjects. A cogent argument can be built using the commonalities of each of the methods for cortisol reduction, that just finding some time to do nothing else, to relax and clear your mind each day, does wonders for stress reduction. How do you differentiate the consumption of the tea from the act of calmly sitting down to drink it?

Sit back and close your eyes while a pot of tea boils. Stop. Breathe. Nap. Clear your mind while you drink your tea. Release your worries, cares and bothers for 15 minutes (don’t worry, they’ll be waiting for you when you finish) and do nothing save existing within yourself for a time.

One day I hope to take my own advise. I have a dream vacation planned in my mind, where I don’t really have to leave home. I’ll get a 2-hour massage every-other-day for a month – hell, maybe even daily. I’ll read, write and maybe work out a little, but just enough to not wither awa – not enough to be sore or concerned by the exercise. I’ll nap when I want and have fantastic, uninterrupted, unfettered sleep each night. For a month.

If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to expand this fantasy. I’ll take as many friends as can spare the time to a beach somewhere for a month. We’ll spend the days under the warm sun. Reading, writing, talking, laughing, frolicking. It will look like a pharmaceutical ad or tampon commercial. We’ll get daily massages and jog barefoot on the beach. There will be meditation with black tea following, music playing in the background of smiles and laughter.

Can you picture it? Fucking cortisol.

You don’t always have to be perfect. You don’t always have to be marathon-ready. Sometimes a “B” gets you to the same place as an “A” with a lot less stress. Sometimes that is better.

Smile.

Breathe.

Be.

Let’s go to a beach for a month and conduct an unofficial clinical trial on natural cortisol reduction.

You. Are. Invited.

**This blog has not been approved for weak-minded idiots**

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