Article by Lisa Turner
Although cortisol does play a vital role in stress management, over exposure can have an impact on your vascular tone. Throughout the day, your body’s hormonal and neural mechanisms work to adapt vascular tone in response to environmental stimuli. Vasodilators relax the smooth muscle in your arteries to lower blood pressure through a series of hormonal mechanisms that begin at the kidneys. When your blood pressure is too low, vasoconstrictors act to reduce the size of your arteries, which in turn raises blood pressure. It is important that both of these mechanisms occur naturally without interruption, as too much of either can cause damage to your cardiovascular system. It is well recognized that cortisol can act on receptors in your vascular system, causing vascular tone to increase. In addition to this, it reduces some of the vasodilators that allows the vascular system to relax. This has an impact on your vascular tone, which can in turn affect your cardiovascular system.
The Impact of Increased Vascular Tone on Your Cardiovascular System
When cortisol releases from the adrenal glands, it enters the circulatory system immediately. The endothelial and smooth muscle cells that line your arteries are sensitive to glucocorticoids. In addition to this, there is evidence suggesting that high circulating amounts of cortisol makes arteries more responsive to norepinephrine and vascular resistance. When vascular tone is high, the space that blood can move through is reduced. As a result, the heart must pump harder to deliver blood to organs around the body. In turn, your heart continues to respond to other hormonal mechanisms at the kidneys which also increase blood pressure. For example, when the kidneys detect low blood volume or low sodium, they will initiate the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone cascade. All of this means that a constant state of hypertension can result. For the average person suffering from high cortisol levels, this means you increase your risk of other cardiovascular diseases. This includes coronary artery disease and heart attacks.
Medications That can Increase Cortisol Levels
There are certain medications that are vital, but can increase your cortisol levels. Being aware that medications can increase levels of cortisol gives you the chance to discuss alternatives with your physician, and it should also prompt you to make some lifestyle changes to reduce cortisol levels elsewhere. Such medications include anti-seizure treatments for epilepsy, like the drug phenytoin. Women undergoing estrogen replacement therapy also need to be aware of the increased cortisol levels they experience. These drugs can cause cortisol to act on your body’s energy resources, which means you need to proactively find ways to manage their effects. For patients using such drugs, this can mean managing stress levels. The activities you choose to manage stress when taking certain medications can depend on what you are treating. Using epilepsy as an example again, it is inadvisable to dive straight into heavy exercise regimens without first consulting your physician. You may therefore want to try alternatives, like yoga or visualizing pleasant scenes.
Finding the Right Health-Lifestyle Balance for Cortisol Management
Finding a healthy lifestyle that complements your personal circumstances is the key to cortisol level management. Each person is unique, which means there is no single approach that can guarantee success. However, it is possible to use existing medical knowledge to try and test what works for you. Some common modes of stress management include:
- Exercise: This doesn’t always mean pounding a treadmill or thrashing out in front of a heavy aerobics class. You can engage in relaxing forms of exercise, like tai chi and yoga. Both tai chi and yoga encourage fluid movements and deep breathing. With regards to vascular tone, deep breathing encourages the rich oxygenation that makes your cardiovascular system’s job easier.
- Meditation: Meditation achieves muscle relaxation, which can also have a positive impact on your vascular tone. This is particularly true of the venous system, which relies on muscular contraction to secure tone and movement. You can combine meditation with deep breathing and visualization.
- Thought journals: Thought journals before bed time are particularly useful for those suffering from insomnia as a result of their high cortisol levels. Write down everything that has happened during the day and the immediate thoughts on your mind. This can promote deeper sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
Pay close attention to refocusing your lifestyle in a positive way. Adaptations are not another reason to incur stress; they are a good way to make gradual changes for the better.