Increasing Your Cognitive Performance | Part 2: Keeping Cortisol in Check

Maintaining cognitive performance is extremely important in our fast-paced and high-demand work-home environments.

In  “Increasing Your Cognitive Performance | Part 1: Physical Exercise”, we defined cognition as: "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses". Cognitive processes were shown to directly relate to generating and applying the knowledge used to inform creative problem-solving and effective decision-making. Age, sleep deprivation, dehydrationinadequate nutrition and stress are all factors that impact sustained cognitive performance. Physical exercise was discussed as one avenue to positively impact cognitive performance through brain stimulation.

In this article, we look at how stress, more specially cortisol, can affect  performance and outline a few ways to manage cortisol so you can stay in the zone.

Stress & Cortisol

Stress is something we all face on a daily basis. In essence, stress is your body's reaction to any challenge or demand that induces emotional or physical tension. Such stressors may come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.

When a person is stressed due to any environmental factors that trigger a fight or flight response, their adrenal glands release the steroid hormone cortisol into their bloodstream. When kept in check, cortisol plays an important role in many bodily functions, including:

However, too much or too little cortisol can have adverse effects on your physical and mental health.

Cortisol & Performance

There are two kinds of stress: good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Optimal levels of cortisol may be linked to eustress. In certain circumstances, the right amount of cortisol fuels your passion and gives you the drive to achieve. When your cortisol levels are neither too high nor too low, you are operating at your peak performance within “the stress zone”.

In his investigations into the high-performance mindset of actors, sports stars and musicians, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that the world’s most talented performers were able to enter into “the zone” or “flow state”. In the zone, cortisol hormones attach themselves to mineralocorticoid receptors at lower stress levels, which improves memory. In flow, you are therefore able to stay focused under pressure, and your memory is sharper. According to Csikszentmihlyi, “to pursue mental operations to any depth, a person has to learn to concentrate attention. Without focus, consciousness is in a state of chaos.” When your cortisol is under control, you can more readily perform at your best, whether at work or at home. You may feel that challenging tasks seem more manageable, your actions are more decisive and problem-solving almost becomes automatic. While a little stress can therefore go a long way, beware. Once your cortisol levels increase beyond this point, your productivity starts going downhill.

Having too much or too little cortisol in the blood can be damaging.. Low levels of cortisol could be a biomarker for depression, apathy, or hopelessness. Elevated levels of cortisol can, on the other hand, be directly linked to the distress caused by environmental stressors. If cortisol levels remain high over an extended period of time, the negative effects may include:

  • Chronic health complications
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness
  • Impaired brain function
  • Infections

Trying to lower stress levels is the best way to lower cortisol and remain in the zone of peak performance. What are some of the interventions that can turn the tide on distress and keep your cortisol levels in check?

1. Get Enough Sleep

It is essential that you get enough good sleep because the amount of sleep you get impacts your cortisol levels. Experts recommend that most adults get between 7–9 hours good sleep, depending on age and other factors. Getting enough sleep isn’t only about total hours of sleep. Uninterrupted, good quality sleep on a regular schedule ensures that you feel rested when you wake up.

2. Exercise Moderately

If exercise is a form of physical stress, can physical stress relieve mental stress? The answer is yes, if you apply it in a controlled and graded fashion. In our previous article we discussed in more depth the impact of exercise, especially aerobic endurance, on cognitive function. This kind of exercise, however, also reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Although exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress, stimulating cortisol release, the more your fitness improves the better the body becomes at dealing with such stress. In effect, as your body adapts, less cortisol will be released during exercise and also in response to emotional or psychological stresses. It is however important practise restraint. . Do not push yourself into the red too often, and be aware of your mental and emotional load before  planning your exercise for the day.

3. Eat the Goodness

Nutrition can influence cortisol in both positive and negative ways. Foods don't contain cortisol, but what you eat can affect your cortisol levels.Foods with a high glycemic index cause cortisol levels to rise. These foods include products high in sugar and refined starches. While, on the one hand, sugar can reduce cortisol in certain situations, offering some short comfort in the face of stress, continuous, high consumption of sugars will keep your cortisol levels elevated, having a negative impact over time. Eating foods with a low glycaemic index approximately every five hours can regulate your cortisol levels. A good balance should be maintained between fresh vegetables, sugars, grains and animal proteins. Finally, it is essential to remain hydrated as dehydration increases cortisol in the bloodstream.

4. Just Breathe

Managing stress comes down to relaxation and helping the mind to better deal with potential stressors. Try experimenting with relaxation techniques including meditation, mindfulness, and even simple breathing exercises. The body releases cortisol when the autonomic nervous system is activated. On the other hand, cortisol levels drop when you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing is a quick and easy way to do this. Try this basic exercise if you like: empty your lungs fully, then breathe in for four counts. Hold your breath for two counts and exhale for six counts. Finally, hold the exhalation for two counts before you breathe in again. Repeat several breath cycles.

Take-away points

Stress impacts performance through the secretion of cortisol into the bloodstream. While medium levels of cortisol can positively impact your performance, high levels over time can be detrimental to your physical and mental health. Trying to lower stress levels is the best way to lower cortisol and remain in the zone. By making simple lifestyle changes to live a healthier, more active life, you can reduce the amount of stress you experience.

Disclaimer:  All opinions in this article are that of the author. They should by no means be constituted as professional medical or psychological advice. If you suffer from stress, chronic illness or health complications or are thinking of starting an exercise regimen, please seek advice from your medical practitioner first.

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