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A Four-Way Solution to Reduce Stress: Combating High Cortisol

By Neel Duggal, March 20, 2020

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We've been talking a lot about chronic stress lately. But now we want to examine some solutions to reduce high cortisol levels because InsideTracker is, after all, more than just a tool to monitor one’s health; it’s ultimately a tool to modify one’s health! In this second of a three-part series focusing on research-documented interventions in treating chronic stress, I will examine four methods that I plan on utilizing to decrease my chronically elevated levels of cortisol.

 

The Wake-up Call

  • Before I got my Ultimate Plan from InsideTracker a month ago, I certainly had reason to believe that I was the portrait of optimal health. I eat healthy meals that include a good amount of protein, fiber, and other nutrients. I work out four times a week with an exercise regimen that includes lifting weights, jumping rope, and sometimes I go to the occasional class at Boston Sport’s Club. I have strong relationships with my friends and family where I can comfortably express my emotions and personality. I am well-educated and plan on furthering my education in medicine and healthcare business. And I regularly check in with my primary care physician and psychologist to evaluate both my physical and mental health -- a testament to my overall commitment to make sure that I am illness-free.

So, when I decided to get that data selfie courtesy of InsideTracker I expected everything to be crystal clear. But that wasn't the case. Instead, on top of my dashboard, was a big red dot called “high cortisol levels”- and I was surprised and pleased to know what was going on in my body. InsideTracker’s quantitative lens in evaluating my health exposed the reality that my health is not perfect and that I needed to make the right interventions to de-stress and decrease my levels of cortisol. Empowered with this new knowledge I then investigated four methods to develop a personalized strategic plan to deal with this health concern I had overlooked.

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Express Yourself: Use Creativity to Reduce Stress

  • In 1989, Madonna told us to “Express Yourself”. And certainly when people express themselves (such as Madonna) interesting things happen. But is your friend dancing a storm up at the club and your other friend complaining about her most recent break up actually improving his or her emotional health (in addition to just irritating you)? Recently, research indicates that there is therapeutic value in expressing one’s emotions -- at least in writing form. 

In 1988 psychology researcher James W. Pennebaker from the University of Texas, Austin wanted to assess the health benefits of “expressive writing” in a landmark study. In it he asked 46 mentally healthy college students to write about either traumatic life events (the intervention group) or about trivial topics (the control group) for just 15 minutes over four consecutive days. He then monitored the students for six months and discovered that the students who wrote about difficult life events actually visited the campus health center less frequently and utilized pain-relieving drug less frequently than their counterparts who wrote about less emotionally intense experiences (Pennebaker, 239). Interestingly, the intervention group also experienced enhanced immune system function as indicated by an increase in the production of certain white blood cells and measurably diminished cortisol levels (Pennebaker, 245). Collectively, these findings suggests that even brief, intensive writing about unpleasant or stressful experiences may have a long-term therapeutic effect on emotional health and chronic stress in individuals without a track record of mental illness.  

I personally don't suffer from clinical depression but I do often experience anxiety and chronic stress -- as illustrated by the high cortisol levels documented on my InsideTracker test. As a result, I am now committed to performing a similar intervention on myself. Over the next few days, I will write about some stress-inducing problems I experience ranging from medical school applications to some difficulties with my interpersonal relationships. In fact, by writing this blog post about stress I am actually feeling less stressed about stress… if that makes any sense. 

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Getting those Z’s: How Sleep Rejuvenates and Lowers Cortisol

  • We frequently hear about the importance of sleep in maintaining health. But how does it impact cortisol levels and stress? According to recent literature, quite a bit: people who suffer from sleep disorders commonly have elevated levels of salivary cortisol. And the association between anxiety and sleep is also evident in the data. A epidemiological survey of 772 individuals by the Journal of Sleep found that people who suffered from sleep-deprivation were 17 times more like that their sound-sleeping counterparts to suffer from anxiety problems (Lichstein).   

As a result of these research findings and my own personal problems with cortisol indicated by InsideTracker, I assessed my own sleeping patterns and realized that I wasn't engaging in a full night of rest. I frequently don’t get a full eight hours of rest, wake up sporadically throughout the night, and oftentimes don’t wake up well-rested. After re-evaluating my sleeping habits, I'm now making some key changes. First, I am not checking my e-mails for 30 minutes before I sleep (not even for InsideTracker!). Secondly, I will finally set up that humidifier in my room to help with my breathing. And lastly, I will find some sort of stress-decompress activity before bed…in fact, maybe I will write that 15 minute “de-stress” journal entry while I crank out 90's R&B.

 

Downward Dog, Upward Dog: Workouts that Help Recovery

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Exercise is a crucial element in maintaining one’s health. And there is abundant research suggesting that even brief, periodic exercise can measurably decrease levels of chronic stress and elevated cortisol. Most of the exercise I do is quite intense, consisting of several weekly sessions of roping for 15 minutes, as well as, heavy weight-lifting exercises such as deadlifts, bench press, and pull ups. While these exercises certainly have numerous health benefits, they are also taxing on the body. In fact, my InsideTracker audit showed that I also had elevated levels of creatine kinase, suggesting that I may not be getting sufficient rest and relief between my workouts.

Because of my elevated cortisol and creatine kinase levels, I am considering tapping into my Indian heritage and modifying my exercise regimen by attending a yoga class once a week. Yoga is a broad discipline which encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual practice that aims to transform body and mind -- not just physical posing. I used to do yoga more in the past but I always felt great afterwards. Even after doing strenuous yoga in hot heat, known as bikram yoga-. I always felt that my muscles were less sore and my mind more at ease. I can see from personal experience that yoga might have a similar impact upon on my joints as well.

And there is research that shows that practicing yoga is a useful tool in improving physical performance and quality of life. In six-month intervention of one hundred thirty-five elderly subjects, researchers assessed the impact of a weekly, 90 minute yoga class on overall health. The yoga intervention group produced improvements in physical measures, as well as, a decrease in fatigue and chronic stress compared to controls (Oken).

 

Self-Compassion: Positive Vibes Help Your Health and Wellness

  • Perhaps one of the most overlooked sources of chronic stress is excessive self-criticism and a lack self-compassion. Research has shown that perfectionism -- a personality style that is commonly characterized by striving for flawlessness and tendencies toward self-criticalness -- is linked to a variety of mental ailments such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, increased risk for suicide, and issues in interpersonal relationships (Shafran). Conversely, self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical. Recent research suggests that exercises in self-compassion, such as verbally telling yourself nice things and gentle physical gestures, produce reduced levels of chronic stress and anxiety (Neff).

It's affirming to have research showing that self-criticalness elevates our cortisol. However, I think we can all personally attest how holding ourselves to unnecessarily high standards makes us less happy and less productive. Sometimes, I need to come to terms with the fact that I can’t always satisfy my family members, everyone at work, and my friends. I have vulnerabilities and sometimes I don’t know the answer to everything. Perfectionism is a pervasive habit in a society  where competitiveness is everywhere. Practicing self-compassion and realizing that our “failures” are not reflections of our intrinsic character but, like non-optimized levels of cortisol, modifiable circumstances.

 

Taking the First Step in Stress Reduction

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The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO). Chronic stress and high cortisol levels aren’t readily identifiable, but they are certainly persistent health concerns that adversely affect our mental and physical well-being. Thankfully, InsideTracker proves to be an invaluable tool in assessing our health from a holistic standpoint.  

Sometimes a data selfie with an unflattering blemish or two is what we need to understand the WHO’s multi-dimensional interpretation of health. And now I'm looking forward to implementing some of these research-proven techniques to manage my chronic stress. 

 

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List of References

Lichstein, K. L., Durrence, H. H., Taylor, D. J., Bush, A. J., & Riedel, B. W. (2003). Quantitative criteria for insomnia. Behaviour research and therapy,41(4), 427-445.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of research in personality, 41(1), 139-154.

Oken, B. S., Zajdel, D., Kishiyama, S., Flegal, K., Dehen, C., Haas, M., … & Leyva, J. (2006). Randomized, controlled, six-month trial of yoga in healthy seniors: effects on cognition and quality of life. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 12(1), 40.

Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 56(2), 239.

Shafran, R., & Mansell, W. (2001). Perfectionism and psychopathology: A review of research and treatment. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(6), 879-906.

WHO (1946) Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization. WHO, New York, USA