Cortisol, 10% unemployment and the kettlebell

How stress could be killing you, and how you can stop it.

Stressed? I get it…

I won’t presume to know the source(s) of your stress but I will assume that if you are part of the majority, you’ve got more than our bodies were built to handle.

The insidious nature of stress is such that you may not even realize how much you’re carrying or how much it’s truly affecting you. It’s as silent as it is pervasive.

And while it’s true we all need to be able to persevere through adversity vs. turtle and hope it all goes away, it’s also true that we can and often do condition ourselves to ignore the warning signs.

Beset on multiple fronts, we’re often faced with challenges we can’t easily overcome or move past. Worse, we’re coerced and conditioned to believe that weathering wave after wave of stress inducing dilemmas, conflicts and challenges while appearing seemingly unaffected is an indication of toughness or success. As though we can shrug off stress’s many biological responses by simply ignoring it.

Don’t you believe it my friend. The stress response isn’t something we can opt out of or condition against. Its biological, its automatic and it has nothing to do with how tough or disciplined we might be.

Now keep in mind, stress is a completely natural and normal phenomenon, as is the body’s response to it. Some stress can motivate us, drive us forward, give us focus and help us achieve. But the unfortunate reality is that the human body was never designed to manage the types of lingering and persistent modern day stresses most of us endure each day. Left unmanaged these modern stresses can break us down and make us susceptible to a myriad of serious illnesses and diseases. Combined with other risk factors these stress related illnesses and diseases can even bring about our premature deaths.

This may sound alarming and believe me the more you learn about it, the more alarming it gets.

Fortunately, there are also ways to fight back. Real, practical, easy to follow methods that can give you the upper hand and help you take back your health and happiness.

First though let’s go back, to when it all made sense…

From Tigers to Traffic Jams

In essence our stress response is a survival response. An ancient, automatic and involuntary response forged progressively over the course of human evolution.

“Fight or Flight.”

You’ve almost certainly heard these words before to describe the sympathetic portion of our autonomic nervous system. But consider the meaning and implications of those words for a moment…

Fight or Flight.

Imagine your ancient self, huddled in the shelter of a group of trees fast asleep. You’re awakened suddenly by the snap of a branch nearby. As your eyes quickly open you find yourself staring back into the eyes of an ancient predator. Its gaze focused intently on you, crouching as it prepares to pounce.

Though a chilling visualization, this is what your stress response was made for.

Your body instantly releases adrenalin and cortisol into your bloodstream. Your pupils dilate to promote better vision, your blood clotting is quickened in the event of an injury and your blood pressure rises increasing blood flow to your brain to facilitate decision making. Blood flow is shunted from your stomach to your large muscles and extremities. Glucose and lipids flood your blood stream for energy. You are now faster, stronger, quicker and smarter.

You are quite literally the living proof of how effective this stress response was and how well your ancestors faired.

For much of evolution, this typified stress inducing events. Sudden, critical, fleeting and physical.

Somewhere along the way though, it all changed. The physical stressors of our ancestors transformed into the psychological and emotional stresses of modern society. Though no longer necessary or relevant, contemporary stressors still often invoke that same ancient “Fight or Flight” response. Persistent and pervasive, these modern stressors occur many times each and every day. From job loss to traffic jams, angry neighbors to mortgage payments. Though emotional / psychological in nature, these contemporary stressors can have us continuously flooding the bloodstream with hormones intended for rare occasions of forceful physical output.

That’s where things go wrong.

Cortisol and adrenaline, the very hormones that once saved us now break us down and its not hard to see why. Elevated blood pressure and heart rate, elevated glucose, triglyceride levels and blood enhanced for quicker clotting may have come in handy for the physical conflicts of our ancestors, but certainly not in modern day traffic jams.

The regular cascade of these stress hormones unchecked now ravage the body by stimulating that same physiological fight or flight response. High blood pressure alone is strongly linked to heart and cardiovascular disease and causes extensive damage to the blood vessels and capillaries in your heart, brain, kidneys and eyes. Diabetes, adrenal fatigue, depression, digestive tract disorders / dysfunction – all ailments strongly linked to stress hormones and the stress response. Continued release of cortisol also compromises the immune system making us more susceptible to any disease or infection our immune system was designed to fight off. As as our tissues become desensitized to cortisol due to repeated exposure, excessive inflammation and auto-immune diseases can be triggered or exacerbated. Stress hormones also have a negative impact on both the male and female reproductive systems and sexual health.

All this from an ancient automated response that was never really intended for our modern lives and lifestyle.

Well now for some good news.

Stress CAN be managed, and the damaging effects of cortisol can be minimized and even reversed. But first we have to become aware of our stressors and acknowledge how vital it is to address them.

Commonly accepted coping strategies such as avoiding stress inducing situations (where practical) and dealing with stressors you can’t avoid head on are great strategies everyone can use. Eliminating reoccurring stress events resulting from a single unaddressed issue is one of the best things you can do to lower the amount of stress you experience. There’s also a number of effective techniques from mindful breathing to meditation and yoga to help relax / refocus our minds and help stimulate positive endorphins.

However, there’s another near universally effective ‘therapy’. Its unique in that it not only fortifies our mental state against the pervasiveness of modern emotional based stressors, but its also effective in expending and dissipating the cascade of catabolic hormones that occur once you’ve had a significant stress episode.

What is this miracle ‘therapy’? This almost magical ‘treatment’?

Its EXERCISE! That’s it. Regular exercise. Its as simple as it is effective.

Now given my role as a fitness facility owner, you may think my endorsement as being biased or perhaps even a bit self serving. Well you might be right. But it’s still the truth. Regular exercise is perhaps the most effective tool you have to fight back against the ravages of chronic modern day stress.

Consider this. Exercise not only dissipates the body’s stress hormones; it also stimulates the production of endorphins. Chemicals in the brain that are natural mood stimulants. So exercise reduces stress hormones and alters your brain chemistry to put you in a positive mood. One that makes you less susceptible to stress and anxiety in the first place. It also increases the secretion of growth hormone, which in adults can have a profound restorative and regenerative effect on the body’s tissues, as well as mood.

How about exercise’s effects on some of the other conditions caused by or strongly linked to chronic stress and elevated cortisol?

High blood pressure: Regular exercise strengthens your heart and lowers your systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading). It helps reduce stress hormones contributing to high blood pressure. Damage to the vessels and capillaries of the heart, brain, kidneys, liver and eyes occurring due to high blood pressure can be reduced as blood pressure is restored to normal levels.

Heart disease: Besides reducing blood pressure, exercise increases HDL (good) cholesterol and may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol – both helping protect arteries against formation of fatty deposits. Improved circulation helps reduce the risk of blood clots that can lead to strokes and heart attacks.

Diabetes: Regular exercise increases glucose and insulin sensitivity of the body’s tissues, improving uptake and absorption of glucose and assisting with the maintenance of healthy blood sugar levels. Additionally, weight loss resulting from exercise can lower insulin resistance.

Exercise also helps stimulate and strengthen the immune system and improve digestion / digestive function. Think of the far reaching implications of just those two alone.

I could go on (and on) but perhaps the best place to finish is where it all starts. In the mind.

Did you know that exercise is emerging as an effective, mainstream treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety disorders and clinical depression? Exercise has a profound and immediate impact on mood, mental outlook and even perception and interpretation of events around us.

Perhaps some of the greatest gifts of exercise aren’t just the changes we see in the mirror or an annual check up. Perhaps they are the ones we experience in our mind and I’m not just talking about things like happiness, peace of mind or serenity either. I’m talking about resiliency. About fortitude. A state where we no longer merely grit and bear stress while it beats us down because we have no choice. A state where we’re energized by a fit cardiovascular system, elevated by mood enhancing brain endorphins, and supported by the quiet confidence of knowing that when we do get overwhelmed – we know exactly how to fix it.

After all, this is Calgary. We know the crunch of finances, the anxiety of rising unemployment and the pressure of schedules so hectic we have to bend time just to pull them off. Stress will still find a way in, spiking our adrenaline and cortisol levels so we feel everything from panicked and short tempered to tired, hopeless and unmotivated.

When stress quietly puts us in a mental choke hold, going to the gym may be the very last thing we want to do. But that’s when we need it the most. Its when our bodies need it and its most certainly when our minds need it. It’s the best way for us to bounce back and keep going. Its how we get our resiliency back. Our tenacity and our drive to push through and keep going and to do it with enthusiasm and passion because we know we’re in the driver’s seat.

Now that’s a health benefit.

Besides, if adrenaline and cortisol have gone and prepped your body for physical exertion – why not give it exactly what it wants.

Pass the kettlebell please…

(Individuals with pre-existing risk factors or chronic medical conditions should consult with a physician prior to starting and exercise program or engaging in physically strenuous activities.)