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Health & Healing

Health and the Holidays

How stress leads to elevated cortisol levels and what that means for your health.

Looming holidays got you at your wits’ end? Are family members ruffling your feathers? Is your “To Do” list longer than Santa’s? Do your kids have you climbing up the wall? Before you know it, your stress becomes chronic, those holiday treats and cookies become breakfast and lunch, and then … Bam! … your cortisol levels are through the roof. What is happening to your mind and your body? They are both losing it! Then your body decides to surge itself in cortisol and, whew! What is cortisol anyway? Sis’, keep reading, and I’ll spill the tea for you below.

Why do we allow ourselves to become so stressed during the holiday season? Perhaps we are too busy setting unrealistic expectations to accomplish insignificant tasks in order to please people who are not contributors to our inner peace or overall happiness? Oooooohhhhh, this tea is piping hot! Grab your mug and “leggo.”

What does the holiday season really mean to you? Is it give and receive, or is it gathering in a spirit of faith and gratitude? Please do not let it be both because, quite possibly, we are starting the holiday season with unrealistic expectations, which may as well be a list written in pencil that you then poured water on. Self-sabotage is exactly what is happening. Did you know that while we are so busy trying to check off the boxes, we are indirectly doing damage to ourselves internally?  Stress wreaks havoc on our lives, both inside and out. A recent national survey revealed that stress decreases our productivity and negatively impacts our families, as evidenced by an almost 50 percent divorce rate in our country. It also leads to burnout. Approximately 25 percent of employees across the country are experiencing burnout related to the additional stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was BEFORE the holiday season.  Can you imagine adding holiday stressors on top of an already unprecedented time? We have yet to even touch upon the internal damage directly caused by stress alone. Let’s discuss.

When stress becomes chronic, a hormone, cortisol, becomes elevated and circulates throughout our bodies. When this hormone circulates for long periods of time, it can directly lead to impairments in your memory, depression of your immune system, a sensitization of your body to insulin, and an increase in your perception of fear. So basically, you don’t know what is going on, you are vulnerable, you are gaining weight, and you are scared and anxious all at the same time. Normally, cortisol rises and falls in our bodies in response to temporary stressors. It is normally responsible for our circadian rhythm, our sleep regulation, blood sugar control, growth and repair on a cellular level, and finally, amino acid production, which are key protein building blocks throughout our bodies. When cortisol is elevated for prolonged periods of time, it increases your risk for breast and prostate cancer, Type 2 diabetes mellitus, Alzheimer’s disease, gut issues such as chronic constipation, migraine headaches, infections, pain disorders, inflammatory disorders, and finally, heart disease.

Let’s take an in-depth look at the impact of cortisol on one of our most critical organs, the heart. Cortisol can narrow your arteries and increase the plaque build-up within them. Cortisol can elevate the precursors of plaque, which are cholesterol and triglycerides. Collectively, this leads to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.  All three of these can possibly result in death!

Do I have your attention now? Are you curious now about your own stress levels and if your cortisol is chronically elevated? You can start your stress reduction journey by asking your doctor to get a urine sample from you to assess the amount of cortisol in your urine over a 24-hour period. That will be an indication of how much cortisol is circulating throughout your body and hopefully an indirect indication of how you need to slow down, sit down, and quiet the stressors in your life. Afterall, when we know better, we tend to do better. Now, how do you reduce the stress in your life? To be honest, I am still figuring that one out for myself. It is a conscious effort that one must make every single day. You must prioritize yourself and your mental health first. Your mental health is in direct alignment with your physical health. I cannot emphasize this direct correlation enough!

Let us all remember that the purpose of stress is to alert us through our bodies to changes in our environment. These changes require us to make adjustments in our actions, responses, and behaviors. So, from nutrition to exercise to mindfulness to financial adjustments, there are things you can do to manage any stressors in your life. So as the holiday season approaches, let us remember the real Reason for the season and act accordingly so we come out of the holiday season refreshed and renewed, with hearts of faith, gratitude, and low circulating cortisol levels!

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