The Woolly Mammoths are dead: What to do when your cortisol levels say different!
It’s evening, the kids are finally in bed; exhausted you flop onto the couch with either the remote or a book. Sound familiar? For most parents it certainly does, and for special needs parents, especially on one of “those” days it is an all too familiar routine. But it’s definitely NOT what is best for you, as much as it seems tempting at the time!
You know what “those” days entail, too many moments spent fighting for your child to receive what you know they need from the school or the daycare, or the specialists. Or perhaps it’s been a day filled with strife between you and your child, or one where you’ve had to bite your tongue one too many times at the ignorance you’ve been on the receiving end from strangers in regards to your child. Now just like you I love to just relax at the end of a long day and I know how much we parents relish those few quite moments we so rarely get, and how the idea of doing even one single thing more seems unfathomable but I’m about to tell you why “vegging out” is not actually the ideal thing for us to do.
Recent studies have been conducted on the levels of cortisol in the blood of special needs parents, and the levels are the same as a person with post-traumatic stress disorder. Cortisol is the hormone in your body that is released during times of stress, often called the “fight or flight” hormone. Cortisol stops many functions such as digestion because really, optimal food digestion doesn’t matter if a woolly mammoth is chasing you. The issue with your body releasing cortisol during stressful times is that it gets released no matter what the stress is. So even when the stress is not caused by a physical threat to your safety, the same amount of Cortisol gets produced and released as when the threat was a woolly mammoth chasing you.
So every time you get really stressed out from one of “those moments” your digestion is temporarily put on pause. If you have enough of “those moments” throughout your day, it becomes one of “those days”, and if you have enough of “those days” you begin to have “those weeks” or even “those months” Which ensures your digestive functions stop for long enough periods of time that even when you eat the daily recommended amounts from various food groups and stay away from oils and fats you will still gain adipose tissue, most often around your torso.
That is not the only aspect of your body that gets turned off during increased Cortisol production. Your immune system also shuts down, because again, beating the common cold doesn’t really matter if you don’t succeed in out running the woolly mammoth that’s chasing you.
Keeping all of this in mind, what have you got at the end of a stressful day? Increased fat storage (your body will turn ALL foods into adipose tissue for storage purposes) and a decreased immune system. Neither of which is all that great on their own, but together they combine to create a body that is in worse physical shape to handle your day-to-day life than it was before the stress. Which doesn’t bode all that well the next time someone with the common cold sneezes near you! I’m not even going to discuss the emotional aspects of a slow steady weight gain while already under stress, and more frequently being sick but we both know they too will often be aspects one must deal with while already juggling stressful times.
What can be done to help yourself? Live a stress free life! I just had to write that one, however for those of us who can’t choose that option, the next best thing is exercise or physical exertion. Why? It’s wonderful because the more you physically exert yourself the lower your cortisol levels will drop. They do this because they were designed to be used during the physical acts of fighting or running from a threat. Any intense cardiovascular exertion will do the trick! So while it might seem like the last thing you want to do, getting some exercise at the end of your day (or whenever you can fit it in!) will do wonders for your digestive and immune systems.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the optimal heart rate for moderate physical exertion is 50-70% of a person’s maximum heart rate. The maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from the number 220. For example a person that is 32 years of age would subtract 32 from 220 (220-32=188) 188 would then be their maximum heart rate. To figure out what their heart rate range should be for moderate physical exertion we would do the following: 188 x 0.50 = 94 and 188 x 0.70 = 132 So a person that is 32 years of age should have their heart rate between 94 and 132 beats per minute during moderate exercise. For vigorous intensity we take the person’s maximum heart rate (188 for our example) and multiply by 70-85% we already know that 70% is 132, so now we do 188 x 0.85 = 160. Which gives us a range of 132-160 beats per minute for vigorous intensity.
The CDC also states that adults should be getting a minimum of 2.5hours of moderate intensity exercise every week (or 1.25hours of vigorous intensity). However for maximum benefits they should work up to getting 5 hours of moderate intensity or 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity exercise every week. They do note that a mixture of the two is of course fine.
While it’s the last thing I want to do some times, I know how much better I feel and in turn how much it’s truly helping me during the good days as well as “those days”. There are tons of activities you can do that will get your heart pumping, from dancing, to Wii Fit, to aerobic exercise routines, running, bike riding, jogging, ice skating, swimming, roller blading, skipping, hiking, martial arts, team sports, Pilates, jumping on a trampoline, and the list goes on! So why not try adding regular exercise/physical exertion into your day it for a month and see how much better you feel!
(As with any exercise program, please consult your doctor or healthcare professional prior to commencing)