Today, in this second module of the “Sage’s Pages” with Dr. Sara Gottfried, we take a dive into the world of cortisol. By now, you will have read Chapter 2 (A Hormonal Primer: Everything You Need to Know About Hormones) and Chapter 4 (High and/or Low Cortisol: Stress Case?), so you’re aware that cortisol the hormone that governs your hunger cravings, digestion, blood pressure, sleep/wake patterns, physical activity, and capacity to cope with stress.
(Before we go any further, for those of you who haven’t gotten hip to our online Book Club yet, you can still sign up for our “Sage’s Pages” series featuring Dr. Sara’s “The Hormone Cure” right here and catch up with us once you’ve ordered the book and taken Dr. Sara’s Hormone Questionnaire.)
In Chapter 4, Dr. Sara explains that “cortisol’s main job is to increase your glucose and store the excess in the liver, through a process called glycogen storage. There are two reasons for this: first, to put glucose into your muscles so that you can fight or run. Secondly, to raise your blood pressure, so that plenty of fresh oxygen gets to your brain and you can think clearly. This is the process behind fight or flight.”
Why does understanding this “fight or flight” response matter to someone who spends more time with an iPhone in the urban jungle than fending off predators in the wild plains? Because this modern, always-on culture most of us are engaged in has rewired our hormonal system. “Many of us are so accustomed to unremitting stress—whether from long work hours, or a difficult marriage, or demanding children—that we’ve actually rewired our brains to perceive danger when it’s no longer a threat, or when it’s relatively minor,” like packing lunch for the kids on a busy morning when everyone’s running late.
“When psychosocial stress is incessant, or when you perceive that life is incessantly stressful, you move progressively from healthy adaptation to toxic, stress-related harm to your body. I call this adrenal dysregulation,” explains Dr. Sara.
This dysregulation could mean either high or low cortisol, or both! Remember when you completed the Hormone Questionnaire last week? If you had five or more checkmarks in Part A, you’re high in cortisol, and if you have five or more in Part B, you’re low in cortisol. Yes, you can have both, and you can find out why by reading up on the conditions that lead to high cortisol on p.76 and the causes of low cortisol on p.91.
The good news? You can do something about both parts of the problem:
1. your perception of stress and
2. equipping your body to give it a better shot at keeping cortisol in check.
1. The first thing is being able to perceive the stressor for what it is. When we are overtired and too busy, small things can become the straw that (continually) breaks the camel’s back. By engaging in a meditation or pranayama practice, you will be better able to see the situation with a calm mind and asses each small disruption for what it is without seeing it as part of an overwhelming morass that you are up against. Being able to skillfully manage your stress puts you at a great advantage, as Dr. Sara points on on p. 76 that her colleague Dr. Mark Hyman claims that 95% of diseases are caused or worsened by stress.
Thus, your first assignment is to engage in the “5 Ways to Lower Cortisol with Yoga” (on p. 87). Yes, that means getting to at least one yoga class this week. But just so that you can experience each of her tips more specifically, do each of these things in independently of your yoga class over the next five days so that you can feel their effects.
1. Wednesday – Chant. You don’t need to be a kirtan master. Even sitting and doing a few rounds of OM will help bring your body into harmony.
2. Thursday – Deep breathe. This one is gerat because you can practice it on the subway, in the car, in line for lunch, anywhere. If you’re able to, try Nadi Shodhana, (sanskrit for Alternate Nostril Breathing) which she describes on p. 109
3. Friday – Release. Spend the day being aware of where you’re holding tension and let it go. Shoulders? Jaw? Begin noticing as you go to sleep all the places you could release more, and use this information in the daytime to bring your attention to those places to release during your waking (and working) hours as well.
4. Saturday – Invert. Dr. Sara explains that, “any time you put your feet above the level of your heart, even with your legs straight up against the wall, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest counterbalance to fight or flight (or tend and befriend in women) of the sympathetic nervous system.” Plus, it just feels good!
5. Sunday – Corpse pose. Even if you do a full yoga class today (and you should! It’s Sunday!) take a moment at home to have a restful savasana and fully feel that release. (You can do corpse pose as a reward for completing next week’s reading: Chapter 7 on Low Thyroid).
2. The second part of your pro-active regimen to combat cortisol imbalance is to give your biochemistry a leg up to deal with this constant draw on your energy that the “fight or flight” response creates.
Dr. Sara gives you a nice long laundry list of things that you can add to your lifestyle to counter your high cortisol on p. 100. So, your second assignment is to add at least three of these cortisol curbers to your routine this week. (Best news ever – the list includes dark chocolate, massages, and orgasms! Homework was never this good in college!) We challenge you to limit your alcohol consumption and/or wean yourself from caffeine this week, and look over the list of other things you can do to bring those stress levels down (which include acupuncture and practicing forgiveness). If you checked off five or more boxes in Part A of the questionnaire, try adding at least one of the vitamins or supplements she lists to your diet.
So – bottom line – your homework for next week is:
1. Do the five yoga-related exercises listed above for the next five days,
2. Incorporate at least three (if not more) of Dr. Sara’s prescriptions for stress reduction on p. 100,
3. Read Chapter 7 on low thyroid for next week’s reading.
Then come back to this page to comment on what your experience was trying these methods to get a handle on your cortisol. Each commenter will receive Dr. Sara’s special report on the “Top 10 Ways to Get Lean”. This 40-page reference guide — not for women only, by the way — gives you the lowdown on what you need to do to reverse your fat storage, as well as the top 10 ways to measure and track your hormones, your sleep and fat burning. Get all this just for leaving a comment below on your experience this week combating cortisol! We look forward to hearing you describe your experience completing our assignments above.