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Sustained level of stress hormone throughout day associated with poor health

When researchers at Northwestern University reviewed 80 previous studies involving more than 25,000 people looking into the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on health, they found that when it remains consistently high throughout out the day, instead of fluctuating as it normally does, it is associated with inflammation/immune problems, obesity, fatigue, cancer, depression and other mental and physical health issues.

Original journal article abstract:

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First of all, let’s talk about stress.  Stress is a normal body response. The stress response is what gave our ancestors the energy to out run the saber tooth tiger or to stay and fight it off.  It’s what causes our hearts to beat like crazy, our breathing to speed up, and our hands to feel jittery. It’s the response we have as we say “I do” on our wedding day, find out we got the job we wanted, just miss getting into an accident, or when the phone rings in the middle of the night.

The stress response involves a number of hormones among them adrenalin and cortisol. The focus of the research above was cortisol. When faced with a stressor (anything that causes stress) we produce more cortisol, which causes our blood sugar (glucose) to go up so we have the energy we need to run or stay put and fight. But cortisol also slows down immune, digestive, reproductive and other body functions we don’t need while we’re running or fighting. Once the threat is gone (we out ran the tiger or fought it off, avoided the accident, answered the phone to find it was a wrong number) our cortisol levels return to normal and our body resumes its normal functions. But, if we are stressed throughout the day, the levels remain elevated.

In addition to producing cortisol when we’re stressed, we also make it each day in sync with our biological clock or circadian rhythm.  Normally, cortisol level peaks early in morning somewhere between 6 a.m. – 8 a.m. to get us up and moving and then slowly decreases during the day with the levels lowest during sleep.

What the research above found was that when people are consistently stressed throughout the day and their cortisol levels don’t taper off as they should, their health suffers.  By managing our stress, we can help get our cortisol levels back in sync with our biological rhythms, and reduce the negative health effects of stress.

So, what can we do to manage stress?

The first thing is to figure out what’s causing the stress. Is it your commute or is it the job you’re commuting too? Is it too many responsibilities or not being able to say no? Is it not having enough income or overspending?

There are a whole host of techniques to help manage stress and knowing the cause will help you identify the most logical actions to take. No sense in taking a different route to work if the problem is your job. 

The American Heart Association offers the following four ways to get a handle on stress:

  1. Positive self-talk

Change the story in your head. Instead of “Everything is going wrong,” try “I can do this one step at a time.”

Here are others:

“I've got this."

"I can get help if I need it."

"We can work it out."

"I won't let this problem get me down."

"Things could be worse."

"I'm human, and we all make mistakes."

"Some day I'll laugh about this."

"I can deal with this situation."

Remember, nothing stays the same, this too shall pass.

  1. Use immediate stress stoppers when you feel overwhelmed:

              You may need different ones for different situations and sometimes combining them helps.

  • Count to 10.
  • Take three to five deep breaths.
  • Walk away from the stressful situation, and say you'll handle it later.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Don't be afraid to say "I'm sorry" if you make a mistake.
  • Set your watch five to 10 minutes ahead to avoid the stress of being late.
  • Break down big problems into smaller parts.
  • Drive in the slow lane or avoid busy roads to help you stay calm while driving.
  • Smell a rose, hug a loved one or smile at your neighbor.
  • Meditate or pray – whichever is your preference
  1. Try to do something each day you enjoy even if it’s only for 15 minutes.

           Here are some ideas:

  1. Start an art project (oil paint, sketch, create a scrap book)
  2. Take up a hobby, new or old.
  3. Read a favorite book, short story, magazine or newspaper.
  4. Have coffee or a meal with friends.
  5. Play golf, tennis, ping-pong or bowl.
  6. Sew, knit or crochet.
  7. Listen to music during or after you practice relaxation.
  8. Take a nature walk — listen to the birds, identify trees and flowers.
  9. Make a list of everything you still want to do in life.
  10. Watch an old movie.
  11. Take a class at your local college.
  12. Play cards or board games with family and friends.
  1. Relax

To relieve stress, relaxation should calm your mind and body. Some good forms of relaxation are yoga, tai chi, and meditation.

Like most skills, relaxation takes practice. Many people join a class to learn and practice relaxation skills.

Deep breathing is a form of relaxation you can learn and practice at home using the following steps. It's a good skill to practice as you start or end your day. With daily practice, you will soon be able to use this skill whenever you feel stress.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap or lie down. Close your eyes.
  2. Picture yourself in a peaceful place. Perhaps you're lying on the beach, walking in the mountains or floating in the clouds. Hold this scene in your mind.
  3. Inhale and exhale. Focus on breathing slowly and deeply.
  4. Continue to breathe slowly for 10 minutes or more.
  5. Try to take at least five to 10 minutes every day for deep breathing or another form of relaxation.

Other ways to reduce stress:

               Make a list of “musts” and “should” – do the musts, leave the “shoulds” for another time. Not
                    everything is a “must,” most things are “shoulds.”
                   Taking the dog out is a must, taking him to the dog park is a should. Nothing will happen
                    if he doesn’t go to the park. Apologize, he’ll understand.

Avoid the stressor, if you can. If traffic on a particular road causes you stress because it makes
       you late,  find another route, leave earlier, or maybe check out taking mass transit.

Minimize the stressor, if you can’t avoid it. Ask if you can work from home a few days a week, or
       change your hours a few days a week so you’re commuting at off peak hours. 

Put the situation in perspective. Not everything is a catastrophe, sort out what is from what
        isn’t.  Not having money for the rent, mortgage or car payment is serious. Not having
        money to buy the newest iphone, isn’t.

For more information

American Heart Association

Fight Stress with Healthy Habits

U.S.Department of Health and Human Services
Manage Stress



Joanna Hayden, PhD, CHES is the principal of Associates for Health Education and Behavior, LLC, in Sparta, a practice focused on improving health through education. Her office offers individual and group health education, and individual health behavior change guidance.  For more information please see  To contact Dr. Hayden, email her

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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