Music can have a calming effect on the brain, whether you're facing a medical procedure or just trying to wind down before bedtime.
By Elizabeth Svoboda
Poor cortisol: It means well but just doesn't know when to quit. Produced by your adrenal glands, this "stress hormone" helps regulate blood pressure and the immune system during a sudden crisis, whether a physical attack or an emotional setback. This helps you to tap into your energy reserves and increases your ability to fight off infection.
Trouble is, relentless stress can keep this survival mechanism churning in high gear, subverting the hormone's good intentions. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause sleep problems, a depressed immune response, blood sugar abnormalities, and even abdominal weight gain. "When cortisol spikes, it tells the body to eat something with a lot of calories — a great survival tactic if you need energy to flee a predator but not if you're fretting over how to pay bills," says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, PhD, author of "The Cortisol Connection."
Fortunately, an antidote to the body's fight-or-flight mode has evolved: the relaxation response. Here are eight surprising ways to invoke it — and in some cases, cut your cortisol levels almost in half.
Cut cortisol 20 percent
Say "Om." Subjects who practiced Buddhist meditation significantly decreased both cortisol and blood pressure in a six-week Thai study. Similarly, participants who meditated daily for four months decreased the hormone by an average of 20 percent in a study at Maharishi University, while levels in the nonmeditating control group actually went up slightly. Visit prevention.com/meditate to learn meditation's other stress-relieving benefits.
Cut cortisol elevation 66 percent
Make a great iPod mix. Music can have a calming effect on the brain, especially while you're facing down a major stressor. When doctors at Japan's Osaka Medical Center played tunes for a group of patients undergoing colonoscopies, the patients' cortisol levels rose less than those of others who underwent the same procedure in a quiet room. Even if an invasive gastrointestinal exam isn't in your immediate future, you can forestall cortisol spikes in other stressful situations — when hosting dinner for your in-laws, for instance — by queueing up background music. And to wind down faster at bedtime, listen to something soothing instead of watching TV.
Cut cortisol 50 percent
Hit the sack early — or take a nap. What's the difference between getting six hours of sleep instead of the suggested eight? "Fifty percent more cortisol in the bloodstream," Talbott says. When a group of pilots slept six hours or less for seven nights while on duty, their cortisol levels increased significantly and stayed elevated for two days, found a study at Germany's Institute for Aerospace Medicine. The recommended eight hours of nightly shut-eye allows your body enough time to recover from the day's stresses, Talbott says. When you fall short of the mark, take a nap the next day — Pennsylvania State University researchers found that a midday snooze cut cortisol levels in subjects who'd lost sleep the previous night.
Cut cortisol 47 percent
Sip some black tea. The "cup that cheers" has deep associations with comfort and calm — just think of how the English revere their late-afternoon teatime. As it turns out, science confirms the connection: When volunteers at University College London were given a stressful task, the cortisol levels of those who were regular black-tea drinkers fell by 47 percent within an hour of completing the assignment, while others who drank fake tea experienced only a 27 percent drop. Study author Andrew Steptoe, PhD, suspects that naturally occurring chemicals such as polyphenols and flavonoids may be responsible for tea's calming effects.
Cut cortisol 39 percent
Hang out with a funny friend. The pal who keeps you in stitches can do more than distract you from your problems — her very presence may help temper your hormonal stress response. Simply anticipating laughter is enough to reduce cortisol levels by nearly half, according to researchers at Loma Linda University. (If your favorite Tina Fey clone can't meet for coffee, you may be able to achieve the same stress-melting effect by popping in a DVD of "The Office" or "Groundhog Day.")
Cut cortisol 31 percent
Schedule a massage. A little pampering can rub your stress levels the right way. After several weeks of massage therapy, subjects' cortisol levels decreased by nearly one-third, on average, according to studies at the University of Miami School of Medicine and elsewhere. In addition to keeping cortisol under control, massage sessions reduce stress by promoting production of dopamine and serotonin, the same "feel good" hormones released when we socialize with pals or do something fun.
Cut cortisol 25 percent
Do something spiritual. Religious ritual fortifies many people against everyday pressures, and it can also lower cortisol secretion, report University of Mississippi researchers. Churchgoing study subjects had lower levels of the stress hormone, on average, than those who did not attend services at all. If organized religion isn't of interest to you, try developing your spiritual side by taking a walk in nature's "cathedral" — in the woods or along a beach — or volunteering for a charity.
Cut cortisol 12 percent to 16 percent
Chew a piece of gum. Next time you feel frazzled, try popping a stick of gum into your mouth to instantly defuse tension, suggest new findings from Northumbria University in the United Kingdom. While under moderate stress, gum chewers had salivary cortisol levels
that were 12 percent lower than nonchewers and also reported greater alertness than their gum-deprived counterparts. One possible mechanism: In past experiments, chewing gum increased blood flow and neural activity in select brain regions.