It’s hard to avoid stress during a global pandemic. The concern is that increased stress can weaken immune functions. Ongoing stress triggers high levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone. Excess cortisol diminishes immune functions, and has been shown to increase disease risk while shortening human lifespans.
A 2019 study found that anticipating stress the next day is associated with elevated cortisol soon after waking up in the morning. Human studies demonstrate that specific plant extracts can reduce cortisol levels and inhibit its destructive effects.
STRESS WEAKENS IMMUNE FUNCTION
A recent poll reports that 45% of Americans feel that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the novel coronavirus. Cortisol is one of the body’s main stress hormones. During stressful times, the adrenal glands release it as part of the “fight-or-flight” response. Necessary for life-or-death situations, cortisol directs a complex series of hormonal and physiological changes that support either fleeing to safety or fighting off the threat.
Cortisol boosts muscle tension, blood sugar, heartbeat, tissue-repair substances, and mental focus. At the same time, cortisol turns down non-urgent processes such as immune functions, along with the digestive and reproductive systems. When the stressful threat has passed, cortisol is supposed to return to normal “balanced” levels. When stressors are almost always present, as they have been since the coronavirus outbreak, cortisol remains “turned on.” Its continuing high presence in the blood adversely affects critical functions of the body and brain.
DANGER OF ELEVATED CORTISOL
Stress results in a decrease in levels of lymphocytes. These immune cells are used to kill viruses and other invaders. Lymphocyte counts are often reduced when one is fighting a viral infection. Even if it’s just for a few days, social isolation and loneliness, both common during the current pandemic, also weaken immunity. Older individuals are more susceptible to stress and to stress-induced immune damage. Long-term overexposure to excess cortisol disrupts almost all body processes, increasing risk for health problems that include:
• Immune impairment,
• Cardiovascular disease,
• Gastrointestinal problems,
• Neurodegeneration, including Alzheimer’s disease, and
• Anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Most worrisome, chronically elevated cortisol is linked to increased mortality risk. A large study of people over age 65 found that men with high cortisol levels were 63% more likely to die than those with lower levels. Women with elevated cortisol were 82% more likely to die than those with low levels. And those with high urinary cortisol had a five-fold increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Higher cortisol is also associated with shortening of telomeres, the stretches of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes. As telomeres shorten, the cells that bear them get closer to the ends of their lives, aging the tissues and organs in which they dwell. It’s impossible to avoid all stress, especially during a pandemic.
But research has demonstrated natural ways to lower excess cortisol levels!
Green Tea Lowers Cortisol Levels
Researchers have found, for instance, that drinking tea lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And evidence of long-term health benefits is emerging, too: drinking at least 100 millilitres (about half a cup) of green tea a day seems to lower the risk of developing depression and dementia.
Regular exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits.
Exercise has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.
It's a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you!
How can exercise contend with problems as difficult as anxiety and depression? There are several explanations, some chemical, others behavioral.
The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the "runner's high" and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over.
Behavioral factors also contribute to the emotional benefits of exercise. As your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self-image will improve. You'll earn a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. Your renewed vigor and energy will help you succeed in many tasks, and the discipline of regular exercise will help you achieve other important lifestyle goals.
Exercise and sports also provide opportunities to get away from it all and to either enjoy some solitude or to make friends and build networks. "All men," wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, "need leisure." Exercise is play and recreation; when your body is busy, your mind will be distracted from the worries of daily life and will be free to think creatively.
And the same stretching exercises that help relax your muscles after a hard workout will help relax your mind as well.