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Scaring Yourself Awake

If you’ve heard about cortisol, you might associate it with high stress and poor health. In fact, cortisol is a naturally-occurring hormone produced by the adrenal gland that helps regulate blood sugar and our metabolism. In synthetic form, it’s called hydrocortisone—a medication with many helpful and healing properties. But you’ve probably also heard of the concept of Too Much of a Good Thing. That’s cortisol, too.

It’s normal for our bodies to increase production of cortisol in the early hours of the day, when we’re first waking up and getting started. Cortisol is one of the hormones that helps us do what we need to do. But research has shown that variations in the ways we wake up can have a big impact on the level of cortisone out bodies produce. And if they produce too much cortisol, our mood, stress levels, and general health may suffer. 

Cortisol is part of the human “fight or flight” response to perceived danger. When we’re shocked or surprised by something—a loud noise, a bright light, a jaguar chasing us through the jungle—our bodies are flooded with cortisol in response. This is known as a “cortisol dump.” If you spend the next hour running through the trees to evade a predator, you’ll need that cortisol to keep you going. 

But if your next hour is spent, say, brushing your teeth, drinking coffee, and making sure the kids remember to wear their jackets, that cortisol has nowhere to go. Eventually your hormone levels will return to normal. But chronic cortisol-provoking events (a.k.a., stress) can be a real source of poor health outcomes. 

The Mayo Clinic explains it this way: “The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol … can disrupt almost all your body's processes.” Some of the health issues the Mayo Clinic correlates to high cortisol levels include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Among the many things that can cause a cortisol spike (a car braking suddenly in front of us, a jump scare in a horror movie) is one that many people willingly expose themselves to every day: a loud, obnoxious alarm to wake us up. From the adrenal gland’s point of view, there’s no difference between the shock of that blaring alarm and the sight of an incoming tsunami. And why would you want to start your day like that? 

We all have to get out of bed in the morning. But we don’t have to stress ourselves out in the process! One simple way to reduce your overall level of cortisol and stress is to wake up to a more soothing, peaceful sound. Maintaining a balanced level of cortisol in the body is linked to better sleep, better memory, and better wellbeing in general. Do your body and mind a favor: don’t shock it into consciousness in the morning. There’s probably no life-threatening wall of water coming your way. 

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