Radical Self Care
I’m an advocate for radical self-care. I define radical, in this scenario, as the departure from societal norms. Ancient people knew the importance of self-care, being aligned with life and taking time to rest and recover. Today, it seems to be a badge of honor to push ourselves until we drop. We are not accustomed to prioritizing ourselves and our self-care. The primary benefit of radical self-care is stress reduction.
Cortisol, our body’s major stress hormone, elevates in response to stressful situations, which is a good thing, but after the stressful situation is over, cortisol should ideally return to normal resting levels. The problem arises, for many of us in modern society, when our levels of cortisol stay high chronically during the day because of persistent work, life and relationship stressors and lack of rest and self-care. Chronically elevated cortisol is associated with multiple health conditions including memory and concentration difficulties, weight gain, cardiovascular disease, poor immune function, poor sleep, mood problems, digestive issues and pain including migraine headaches.
Additionally, sustained cortisol elevations have been shown to have negative effects on the brain in animal models of disease and in humans. In fact, higher cortisol blood levels are associated with lower overall brain volume, and even structural changes in the brain (2, 3). Some studies would also suggest that the changes in brain structure that are associated with higher cortisol levels, may lead to cognitive decline (4).
Chronic high levels of stress are also associated with alterations in our chromosome structure. Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes that cap our chromosome ends and promote chromosome stability. Studies have shown an association between high levels of chronic stress with shorter telomere length which is a sign of accelerated aging. Generally, telomeres shorten as we age, but women with high levels of perceived stress have telomeres far shorter on average, by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging, compared to women with low levels of perceived stress (1).
Toxic environments lead to elevated perceived stress, premature aging and a multitude of health-related issues. There can be toxic jobs and toxic relationships, and they can eat away at you, not only psychologically, but physically, too. I have seen dramatic turn-arounds in a person’s health journey after leaving their toxic job or relationship behind. This is not a trivial point. In our society we tend to tolerate intolerable situations for too long. It is time for radical self-care. If you don’t prioritize yourself and your self-care, who will? It not only helps you, but it helps those around you, as happiness is contagious.
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1. Epel ES, Blackburn EH, Lin J, et al. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004;101(49):17312-17315.
2. Echouffo-Tcheugui JB, Conner SC, Himali JJ, et al. Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology. 2018;91(21):e1961-e1970.
3. Geerlings MI, Sigurdsson S, Eiriksdottir G, et al. Salivary cortisol, brain volumes, and cognition in community-dwelling elderly without dementia. Neurology. 2015;85(11):976-983.
4. Cox SR, MacPherson SE, Ferguson KJ, et al. Does white matter structure or hippocampal volume mediate associations between cortisol and cognitive ageing? Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015;62:129-137.