One of your stress hormones, the alfa hormone cortisol may be low or high, you think. In reality it can be low when it should be high and/or high when it should be low, or low usually or high most of the times. All these conditions can be simply called cortisol dysregulations.
Cortisol levels ares difficult to test in order to draw conclusions on your health, because cortisol has a daily pattern depending on your circadian rhythm. Further it is generally higher in women than in men and because sex hormones may interfere with its blood or saliva levels the test results can differ according to the female cycle as well.
Having higher cortisol levels in women could be one of the reasons why women are more prone to develop depression starting already at high school. In fact 50% of people diagnosed with depression have high cortisol levels (1). High cortisol is linked to abnormal blood sugar, slow wound healing (studied on men see (2)), increased body fat, infertility and polycystic ovarian syndrome in child baring women (3), further bone loss in menopausal women (4). Long lasting stress, or long lasting perception of stress elevates cortisol levels, that may lead to the condition of adrenal fatigue, when the adrenal glands, that produce cortisol, can’t support the ongoing need anymore. They give up, and burnout occurs, weird pessimism accompanied with cravings for sugar, adrenaline and caffeine, attention deficit and detachment from work.
Not all type of exercises are helping the different stages of cortisol dysregulations. High Intensity Interval Training for instance or African Dance (5) are studied in this respect and were found to increase cortisol levels. So as evening exercise sessions in the gym with strong, unnatural light, because it’s disturbing melatonin onset. Melatonin onset starts daily 2-3 hours before your expected nocturnal sleep. When it’s disturbed it compromises your circadian rhythm and a whole cascade of hormonal processes that depend on the circadian rhythm, so as cortisol.
Some exercises and activities that were studied had no affect on cortisol levels, while certain type of breathing techniques (6), meditation or relaxation (7), orgasm (8) for instance were found decreasing its blood or saliva levels.
HOW TO CHOOSE EXERCISES: Now how can you possibly choose which exercises and when you should practice for your best?
There are exercises that are not associated with any kind of hormonal risks, such as practicing balance positions. They are mainly decrease cortisol levels if it’s high by not only clearing them off your blood, but generating signals to your brain not to send stress hormones out to your blood anymore. This way they give recovery time to your adrenal glands. In case they are fatigued, you certainly need that!
WHICH POSITION AND WHEN TO PRACTICE: It is personal, which ones and when YOU need, so YOU need to learn to choose. You will notice that some balancing positions will not have any affect on you if too easy or would make you even more frustrated if too difficult, which would further increase your stress levels.
For this purpose choose always slightly challenging positions, when you need your full attention, yet you end up with successful practice and satisfaction. This can vary not only from person to person depending on strength and experience, but also from your individual mental condition. whether you are worked up or calm. When worked up, exhausted, disappointed go for easier positions first until you regain your calm. Then you can flow into the more difficult versions. All positions have different levels!
Balance exercises need a great amount of core strength, so while practicing them you are strengthening your core one hand, on the other hand it’s useful to keep adding short, 2-5 minutes core strengthening routines to your mornings. You don’t need to go to the gym therefore, you can just use your carpet in the living room.
When you chose your position and you are getting into it, gaze at one point while breathing slow, with the so called diaphragmatic breathing. You focus all your strength to your naval hub, to you pelvic cavity and pelvic floor, to your core. Your core is holding you up, your core is carrying you, that’s your power house. Leave the chest out of the breathing and feel only your belly moving as a result of the breathing, feel your power there. You inhale slowly through the nose, and may exhale through the mouth or nose which ever is more comfortable for you.
Now go to the Exercises and choose one for your practice. You can get to any of the balancing positions step by step, spending more time at some stages. No worries if it doesn’t work out for the first or fifth time.
Practice makes master!
(1.) Clinical and biochemical manifestations of depression. Relation to the neurobiology of stress. Gold PW, Goodwin FK, Chrousos GP; New England Journal of Medicine 319/7/1988;
(2). Perceived stress and cortisol levels predict speed of wound healing in healthy male adults. Ebrecht M, Hextall J, Kirtley LG, et al; Psychneuroendocrinology 29/6/2004;
(3). Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis hypersensitivity and glucocorticoid receptor expression and function in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Milutinovic DV, Macut D, Bozic I, et al. Experimental and Clinical Endocrinology and Diabetes 119/10/2011;
(4). The relation between cortisol excretion and fracture in healthy older people: results from the McArthur studies-Mac. Greendale GA, Unger JB, Rowe JW, Seeman TE; Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 47/7/1999;
(5) Effect of Hatha yoga and African dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. West J, Otte C, Geher K, at al; Annals of Behavioural Medicine; 28/2/2004;
(6). Diaphragmatic breathing Reduces exercise induced oxidative stress. Martarelli D, Cocchion M, Scuri S, Pompei P; Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 49/1/2009;
(7) The impact of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation on salivary cortisol and salivary immunoglobin A (SIgA). Pawlow LA, Jones GE; Applied psychophysiological and Biofeedback 30/4/2005;
(8). The Science of Orgasm; Komisaruk BR, Beyer-Flores C, Whipple B; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006