Stress and Cortisol by Marika Molnar PT, LAc:
Our Stress Hormone
The word “cortisol” is a recent addition to our vocabularies. Cortisol, a steroid hormone, is produced in the adrenal glands and is known to be active in the“fight or flight” response. With stress, it constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood. Cortisol should temporarily increase energy production, and then return to base line levels after the stress has ended. The problem is that in our fast paced, very stressful lives, our cortisol levels are chronically elevated. Our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly, which negatively affects other vital functions that cortisol production suppresses.
How Does Cortisol Work
Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver that results in increased blood sugar levels. Cortisol is also an antagonist to insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas to turn this blood sugar into ENERGY. However, since cortisol blocks the effects of insulin, the cells are effectively rendered insulin-resistant. Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose, regardless of how much food is actually consumed. This means that the cells send more hunger signals to the brain leading to overeating. The unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat, particularly visceral fat where there are four times the number of cortisol receptors in place.
Cortisol and Inflammation
Cortisol has positive functions: it wakes us up and also reduces inflammation in the body. However, once again, an excess of cortisol proves to be deleterious. Over time, this effort to reduce inflammation also suppresses the immune system, potentially leading to susceptibility to anything from food allergies to colds. Why? Because cortisol activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), while the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is suppressed. Since the two systems cannot operate simultaneously, digestion and absorption are compromised and this leads to the possibility of indigestion and even Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Clearly, we have to reduce stress/cortisol overload. The most natural method to accomplish this goal is through daily deep, focused breathing. We know this because Dr. Herbert Benson conducted double blind studies at Harvard University in the 60s which proved conclusively that proper breathing could reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and consequently restore homeostasis thereby reducing cortisol. His technique, performed twice daily for 20 minutes, involves sitting and vocalizing a word, accompanied by deep breathing. Today, however, we sit way too often which is why this position has been termed, “ the new smoking.” Even worse, people sit slumped and compressed with their legs crossed. This typical seated posture actually inhibits the deep or what we call three dimensional breathing.
The 21st Century Protocol
Substituting supine for seated is a better position since it also reduces the impact of gravity. Lying comfortably on Parasetter’s two convex rollers makes the body far more receptive to stress relief because it also reduces tension in the spine. Most importantly, though, we see how deep breathing is facilitated in the supine position. Remember that the lungs are also in the back of the body so focusing the breath into the back ribcage creates a fuller expansion of the thoracic area which improves the diaphragmatic excursion. Plus, Parasetter’s Rib Wrap makes the typically unconscious and shallow act of breathing very physical and tactile. This type of total breathing also increases inner core strength and flexibility and improves circulation.
Our Complex Systems
Parasetter® positively affects three major systems in our bodies: the nervous system, the endocrine system, responsible for cortisol; and the musculoskeletal system.
We know that the musculoskeletal system often develops tension and gets compressed due to daily stresses, whether they be physical or emotional. In order for our fascia and connective tissues to stay flexible and healthy, they need a way to recover from the effects of these stressors. Furthermore, the spine needs to decompress to allow the fascia and peripheral nerves to glide smoothly. When the muscles relax and reset their tone, this will reduce the compression on the peripheral nerves allowing the fascial connections and the nerves to glide easily.
Meanwhile, our AUTONOMIC nervous system functions involuntarily to help us adapt to our changing internal physiological environment. Its goal is the restoration of homeostasis, or internal equilibrium. It does this by synchronizing the dual innervation to the visceral organs, glands and vessels. But, constant stresses causes the endocrine system to interfere with this process. The function of the SNS is to provide optimal conditions for a stress response and mobilizes the body in extreme situations by employing stress response hormones such as cortisol. Meanwhile, the PNS allows us to unwind as it performs maintenance activities and conserves energy. It’s also responsible for digestion and elimination, and keeps blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate at regulated levels. But since the PNS and SNS do not function simultaneously, we need to take control to reduce physical and mental stresses and their resultant imbalances. And this power is within our own reach. Parasetter® and three dimensional breathing are powerful, natural tools for a longer and healthier life.