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Stress, COVID-19, and Your Endocrine Health

Chronic stress in a time of global pandemic can lead to increased cortisol hormone levels. Get your hormones back in balance with these stress control tips.

It’s safe to say most of us are experiencing heightened levels of worry and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for quarantine, financial worry, collective grief, and fear of the unknown can all lead to nail-biting and sleepless nights. Of course, feeling stress right now is inevitable, but we can mitigate its effects on our minds and bodies.

Your endocrine system is what controls your response to this sort of stress and worry. But when your endocrine system doesn’t work properly, you may have one of many conditions, such as Cushing’s syndrome, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or diabetes. If that’s the case, it’s extra important that you manage your stress levels.

The endocrine system is made up of several glands and is responsible for the production of hormones, many of which send important ‘messages’ through your bloodstream. These messages tell your body to regulate processes like breathing, water balance, blood pressure, metabolism, and more.

One of the most important hormones? That’d be cortisol. It’s been nicknamed the ‘stress hormone,’ because it controls our stress response. For that reason, it gets a bad rap, but that’s because it’s misunderstood.

Cortisol is a necessary hormone. It helps regulate:

  • blood sugar
  • blood pressure
  • water balance
  • inflammation
  • metabolism
  • memory creation
  • in pregnant women, it plays a role in the development of the fetus

Evolutionarily, cortisol (along with its sidekick adrenaline) is released as a response to stress. It’s thought to have protected us or helped us kick into defensive "fight or flight” mode when a threat was sensed. This makes our heart race and keeps us from being able to sleep properly. Although our stressors and environments have changed over time, the stress response remains.

Today, our cortisol levels go up and down, usually lowering at night before we sleep. When we’re stressed, cortisol is released as a way of adapting and responding to that stress, but too much cortisol in the blood, on the other hand, is the problem.

There’s no doubt that we are all going to experience some level of stress as we watch COVID-19 force us to make some major changes to our everyday lives. This stress response is especially strong for people who’ve been through trauma or are genetically susceptible to overactive stress responses. 

Long-term, chronic stress can flood your body with cortisol, leading to:

  • anxiety
  • gut health issues
  • heart problems
  • weight gain
  • cognitive issues (such as problems concentrating)
  • depression
  • lowered immunity (an especially risky side effect during times of rapid virus spread)

As many of you already live with endocrine disorders and are working at home or trying to take care of a family during quarantine, it’s extra important to care for yourself during this time.

Be aware of your stress level

Even though you know you’re stressed out, you may not even realize that you’re experiencing cortisol overload — or that it’s affecting your body. This can be especially problematic when you’re already living with endocrine issues that can be made worse by an increase in stress hormones. 

First things first? According to Dr. Claudia Luiz, PsyaD, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you’re worried or anxious, it’s totally valid to admit it. And suppressing those feelings can kick up your cortisol levels.

“It can really help to start with the idea that feelings are in the body, and that you can slowly begin to work on how your body feels when you have a thought and feeling.” If you notice that the newsfeed is causing your heart to race or to feel that classic “pit” of dread in your gut, tune into it. You’ll want to turn to relaxation and hydration, Dr. Luiz says. Nurture your body with water and remove yourself from the stress as much as you can.

Some stress-reduction techniques that have an immediate effect on stress — and a long-term effect, when done daily, on chronic stress — include meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and journaling.

Techniques for stress management meditation

Everyone talks about meditation, sure, but it actually supports the endocrine system, according to a recent study. Another recent study found that mindfulness meditation can help manage hormones and boost wellbeing.

New to mindfulness and meditation? Mindfulness is a simple concept that takes time to master. It’s the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement, according to meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the stress-reduction program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

To practice mindfulness meditation, you can download an app such as Calm or Breathe, or simply find some time alone to sit in silence and breath in and out, focusing on your breath. Oh, and it’s normal, during meditation, to be flooded with thoughts and worries. The goal is to come back to the breath. The Mayo Clinic suggests getting comfortable, lying back, and focusing your attention on each part of your body — scanning it from head to toe. You’ll want to be aware of your thoughts and sensations as you do this.

If you’re not sheltering in place or quarantined, you may want to go on a solitary mindfulness walk — remaining six feet from others. You can even do this in your own home, if you need to. The goal is to slowly walk, while remaining aware of your movement and balance. As Dr. Luiz says, getting into the body can help us escape or manage some of the thoughts that are causing us chronic stress.

Deep breathing

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is another helpful cortisol-reducing technique, according to a recent study which found that people who did deep breathing — breathing deep into your abdomen, versus shallow ‘normal’ breathing — experienced a reduction in cortisol levels. The best thing yet? It’s free!

Simply find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your lower belly. Your belly should rise and be full of air.

Breathe out through your mouth or your nose. Be mindful of your feelings as you breathe deeply. You should feel relaxed as you do this for several minutes. Imagine, as you breathe, that you are taking in peace and calm, and breathing out stress. This will signal to your body that you are nurturing and relaxing it, thus lowering your cortisol levels.

Other lifestyle changes that can lower your stress levels

During your time in quarantine, it might be wise to start implementing some lifestyle changes. The good news is that these sorts of changes will probably stick — if you are diligent with them — offering benefits far after the COVID-19 crisis. For now, though, the goal is to lower your stress levels. While it may seem like a scary time to tackle change — we’ve had enough of it, haven’t we? — these sorts of changes are good.

According to Dr. Lisa Ballehr, DO, getting on track with a healthy eating, exercise, and sleep routine is key. 

“As one of the core elements of functional medicine, nutrition holds the key to unlocking optimum health,” she says. “Focus on eating regular meals each day starting with a good breakfast.” She recommends foods like low-mercury fish, organic chicken and free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive and coconut oils, and lots of fruits and vegetables. 

Consider taking adaptogenic supplements as well, which may help support your body’s healthy stress response, according to recent studies. These include Schisandra and Ashwagandha. One study found that “adaptogens have specific therapeutic effects in some stress-induced and stress-related disorders.”

Beyond healthy eating, you’ll want to get enough sleep. Dr. Ballehr says you should aim for seven hours of sleep every night. Aim for a bedtime and a waking hour at the same time each night and morning. If you’re having trouble sleeping — and who isn’t? Therapist Julie Kolzet, PhD, recommends a few key tips:

  • Use your bedroom only as a sleeping space and not a working space
  • Stop scrolling social media in bed
  • Avoid alcohol as a sleep aid
  • Get into bed early
  • Get some exercise during the day

Oh, and try not to spend time worrying about not sleeping or worrying about worrying. It’s perfectly normal to have anxiety during this crisis; it’s how you respond to it that counts.

 

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