Barbara Harris, Edmonton, AB, Canada asked:
Question: “Some time ago, I received an email regarding cortisol. Since then I’ve been taking deep “belly breaths” through the nose, holding for two minutes, then blowing out through my mouth, repeating three to four times at a time. I have been doing this off and on and I think it really helps. Steve, what do you think?”
Answer: Barbara, you’re on the right track… breathing exercises can help ease stress and combat the effects of excess cortisol (the body’s response to fear or stress). Slow, deep breathing signals the body to calm down, and ultimately reduce cortisol.
Esther Sternberg, a physician, author and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, has a helpful analogy that illustrates what breath can do to relieve stress. Think of a stress response as a car speeding down the highway at over 100 mph. Slow, deep breathing stimulates the relaxation response, which is like applying the brakes to that car speeding down the highway.
However, holding your breath for two minutes, as you said you do, seems a bit long. My research indicates breathing in through your nose for a count of four, and holding for two seconds, then exhaling through your mouth for another four seconds is the optimal method. I recommend doing this for just a minute or two to help ease some of your stress.
The Concern With Cortisol
I’ve talked about the downsides of cortisol for years. In fact, it’s one of the four hormones that are keeping you fat.
Scientists know that elevated cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your waistline. But you may not know that elevated levels of this hormone can also make concentration more difficult… and have negative effects on your mood.
Why Cortisol Overload?
You might have heard it called the fight-or-flight hormone. That’s because way back when we were hunter-gatherers, we needed this response to stay out of harm’s way.
Imagine if you will, you’re a caveman out for a stroll in the jungle. Suddenly, you come face to face with a saber-toothed tiger. Without thinking, your brain responds by pumping oodles of adrenaline and cortisol into your body.
This allows your heart to pump faster, your breathing to become shallow, and your blood to course through your arteries faster. All so you can run quicker, hit harder, and jump higher than you normally would… to get away from that dangerous beast.
Fast-forward a few million years…
Things have changed since the caveman days. We’re no longer in danger of the occasional toothy tiger. However, our bodies haven’t gotten the memo. We still react to stress in the same way we did back then.
Only now, the stress is ever-present, and our bodies still react in the same way we did back then, with a surge of cortisol.
Your boss yells down the hall, “Where’s that report?” and you can almost feel the cortisol coursing through your bloodstream.
Add lack of sleep, too much work and other non-stop modern day stressors and, instead of a burst of cortisol to help us run from predators, high cortisol levels remain ever present.
This leads to a slower metabolism, muscle loss, and unsightly fat accumulation, especially in your abdomen.
So it’s critical that you find ways to relieve the stressors that raise your cortisol level. Outlets such as kickboxing or a punching bag can release some pent up energy that stressors can bring (much like fighting that saber-toothed tiger would have).
Some other stress reducers in addition to deep breathing:
Exercise. I know, you’re rolling your eyes. But layer in some exercise into your routine. Even just walking for 30 minutes each day will help get your body’s natural endorphins (“feel good” chemicals) flowing, and help clear your mind.
Clear some clutter. Mail piling up? Haven’t seen the top of your desk since 2007? Pick one clutter cluster to purge and see how much lighter you feel.
Do some volunteer work. Seeing what others go through can help put things in perspective, and even create what’s called the “helper’s high”—a profound sense of well-being and optimism.
Speaking of stress, I want to remind you that Weight Loss Formula No. 1 contains a standardized root extract of rhodiola to help fortify your body’s response to stress. In fact, it’s clinically shown to help reduce anxiety and tension and promote emotional well-being. This is why people who take the product feel so great, and one of the many reasons why it’s so effective.
Thanks for a great question, Barbara.
Steven Sisskind, M.D.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
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