Meditation for Cortisol Regulation
By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
Stressors are plentiful in our modern world: paying the bills, relationship troubles, meeting project deadlines… While some amount of stress is normal, chronic stress can affect your daily life and oftentimes leads to long-term health consequences. Luckily, there are ways we can balance our stress response naturally.
Stress Throughout History
When you’re stressed, your cortisol rises: this is nature’s alarm system, your body’s main stress hormone. Chronic stress raises your cortisol levels, and over prolonged periods of time, this can lead to fatigue, hormone imbalance, weight gain, and feeling burnt out.
Evolutionarily, stress is actually a good thing! It’s a part of the “fight-or-flight” response responsible for keeping our ancestors alive. However, the disconnect is in how often we feel stressed out. Back in the day, stressful situations came, a human reacted, and it was over. For example: If confronted by an angry lion, our ancestors would have kicked into fight-or-flight and either fought the lion off or ran away. Either way, once they reached safety, the stressful situation was over and they could continue going about their life.
On the other hand, you have modern day stress of the digital age. Our stressors last longer and are more complex than 10 minutes of “Oh no, lion.” Our stress is often situational and compounding, lasting for months or even years. The stress response that was originally intended to help us adapt to new environments and challenges thrown in our path is now an overwhelming state of mind that impacts daily life.
Long-Term Effects of Stress
Stress makes us moody and irritable and might mess with our sleep, digestion, and attention span. These are just the immediate symptoms of stress—when our cortisol levels are raised for long periods of time, even more, serious effects begin to take place.
Weight Gain: Most of us crave junk food when we’re stressed: fatty, salty, or sugary. This can contribute to weight gain, but even more damaging is the link between stress and insulin resistance, a major trigger for weight-gain and a precursor for diabetes.
Inflammation: Elevated cortisol levels are linked to inflammation, which is said to be the root of all modern disease.
Accelerated Aging: Stress damages the blood-brain barrier, putting you at a higher susceptibility for Alzheimer’s.
Memory & Learning: Chronically elevated cortisol is linked to a shrunken hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Immune System: Chronic stress lowers your immune system. When confronted with a lion, our body isn’t worried about fighting off pathogens; it justs wants to make it out of the immediate system in one piece. High cortisol levels leave you susceptible to getting sick more often, and it may take you longer to recover from colds.
How Meditation Can Help
Meditation practices have been around since as early as 1500 BC, and modern science has recently taken a fascination with this ancient practice. Some of the proven benefits of meditation include:
- Less Stress: Meditation can lower stress, anxiety, and inflammation.
- Lower Blood Pressure: A daily meditation practice can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increase circulation.
- Body and Mind: Meditation is a booster for your body and mind, with positive effects on the immune system and brain function! Research shows that meditation greatly benefits memory, attention span, and peace of mind.
- Better Sleep: Studies show improvement in sleep quality and duration in participants who meditate.
- Healthy Weight: Meditation lowers the risk of obesity and overeating.
Starting a Meditation Practice
Meditation is a powerful practice that’s free to do!
Pick a quiet spot, where you feel comfortable and won’t be interrupted. This could be in your bedroom, or maybe even somewhere outside. You can start with a short session and work your way up to longer sessions: go at your own pace. If your mind starts to wander, let it. Focus on your breathing and quieting your thoughts, but don’t force anything.
It can be intimidating to get started; many people worry that they don’t know how to meditate the “right” way. However, there is no right or wrong when it comes to meditation: the end goal is a reduction in stress, so don’t work yourself up worrying about being perfect. Namaste!