We do not realize the stress in day to day life, be it in professional or personal life. Did you think how dangerous it can be once it persists longer and reaches to its extreme? This stress manifests in invisible depression, severe chronic ailments, metabolic disorders (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity), accidents, suicides and even sometimes making our DNA-repairing-machinery susceptible to repair mutations in dividing cells in our body resulting into tumor and cancer . This stress in our body is regulated by cortisol hormone.
Cortisol (hydrocortisone) is a steroid hormone. Its secretion is controlled and regulated by hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal gland forming hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. It functions to neutralize and relax stress or emergency “fight or flight” responses .
What if you are under constant stress, fight or flight situation and alarm button remains on due to less cortisol? In this case (when cortisol is low) it causes a number of health problems including, heart disease, anxiety and depression, headaches, insomnia, weight loss, continuous tiredness, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting and pain in abdomen leading to Addison’s disease. On the other hand, high cortisol causes weight gain (particularly around the face and abdomen), high blood pressure, thin and fragile skin, osteoporosis, mood swings, decreased libido, acne and in women, facial hair and irregular menstrual periods leading to Cushing’s syndrome. We can also observe these symptoms as side effects in individuals where doctors prescribe oral corticosteroids (hydrocortisone, prednisone or cortisone), synthetic version of cortisol to supplement low cortisol levels. Apart from neutralizing stress, along with certain parts of brain, it controls and regulate your mood, motivation and fear .
For example, when your body is on high alert or fear, cortisol can shut down or alter functions that interfere in this process. These might include sudden shutting down your digestive or reproductive systems so that your body can prepare itself to face emergency conditions [3, 4].
Cortisol acts on different organs/parts of the body to increase body’s metabolism of sugar, to control blood pressure and reducing inflammation [5, 6]. Most of the cells in the body have cortisol receptors which start downstream signaling upon cortisol binding to these receptors, initiating the cortisol regulated responses. It also forms negative feedback loop within hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis to regulate body’s neuroendocrine response to stress (Figure). Right amount of cortisol is associated with good health. Yoga brings cortisol levels down to normal in even chronically ill patients (suffering from type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and Cushing’s disease) who have abnormally high level of cortisol .
Anjaneyasana (low lunge), uttanasana (forward fold), adhomukh svanasana (downward facing dog), setubandhasana (bridge pose), sarvangasana (shoulderstand), halasana (plow pose), shalbhasana (locust pose) and vrikshasana (tree pose) reduce cortisol levels significantly in our body.
In present scenario due to our changed life style of working in late hours, work commitments and reduced awareness and negligence to yoga, our naturally established circadian rhythm is perturbed leading to disturbance in neuroendocrine system of our body which invites stress/perturbations/chronic disease conditions. However, research findings suggest that practicing yoga, even for the first time, brings cortisol levels to balance from either too high or too low levels . Practicing yoga under the guidance of a trained person can do wonders to control and regulate the cortisol up to optimum level in our body. So, what do you think!! Let’s do yoga… 😊
By: Dr. Shivendra Tenguria, Purdue University, USA
- Tamashiro, K.L., et al., Chronic stress, metabolism, and metabolic syndrome. Stress, 2011. 14(5): p. 468-74.
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