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Lily Tomlin got it right when she declared, “For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” The award-winning actress and comedienne was no doubt talking about the effects of stress. And stress is no friend when it comes to warding off the signs of aging.

Excessive or chronic stress has a detrimental effect on the hormones we need to keep us young. A huge variety of stressors affect us daily, from the noise and pollution of crowded cities to work, driving, lack of sun exposure, loneliness, and much more. When these stressors accumulate, they disrupt the delicate hormone balance that affects everything from how slowly we lose weight to how fast our skin wrinkles.

The effects of stress are often visibly obvious. It is indeed possible to “age overnight” as impaired cellular processes can transform a person with a glowing complexion and energetic demeanor into someone with wrinkled skin, dull eyes, weight gain, and mood swings. Take the stress test included here to determine your stress level—and what you should do about it.

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
In stressful situations, the brain orders our adrenal glands to secrete two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Of the two, cortisol is most concerning from an anti-aging perspective. Cortisol has a natural rhythm throughout the day. Your body should produce more in the morning than in the evening, giving you the energy to begin your day. In the evening, as you leave your daily stresses behind, cortisol levels should drop by 90 percent. However, a recent study found that women who work outside the home and have family responsibilities tend to have elevated evening cortisol levels.

Not all cortisol is bad; in fact, cortisol is essential for regulating many bodily functions, including immune system hormones and the body’s use of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Yet elevated cortisol levels over the long term have been shown to have a long list of negative effects, including: blood sugar problems, fat accumulation, compromised immunity, infertility, exhaustion, chronic fatigue, bone loss, high triglyceride levels, and heart disease. The adrenal glands also grow exhausted and stop functioning properly, which leads to depression, digestive problems, headaches, irritability, poor concentration, and recurring infections.

When cortisol is high, we also see a drop in the production of the anti-aging hormone known as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). We have naturally high levels of DHEA when we are young, but experience a steady decline after the age of 20. Low DHEA is associated with loss of muscle mass, strength, and stamina; low sex drive and sleep problems; fatigue, memory decline, and more. If you want to support DHEA production in the body, lowering cortisol is key.

Balance Your Cortisol with Mother Nature
To counteract stress-induced aging, help balance your cortisol levels through a healthy diet that includes nutritional supplements. A cortisol-balancing diet consists of organic fruits and vegetables (7–10 half-cup servings per day), lean proteins, and plenty of unprocessed fats and oils (like olive, coconut, borage, echium, evening primrose, and flax oils). Because it is virtually impossible to obtain all the nutrients we need from the diet alone, you should also supplement with a high-quality multivitamin and mineral formula.

There are certain herbs supported by excellent research indicating their use for cortisol reduction and adrenal fatigue. Adaptogenic herbs that support the adrenal glands and help the body adapt to stress include rhodiola rosea, suma, schizandra berries, and ashwagandha. For best results, look for a herbal formula that contains these in combination. Many people who use adaptogenic herbs report an improved sense of overall well-being within a very short time.

It is also important to lower the amount of stress in your life and to routinely engage in activities that relax the mind and the body. Your mind and body are one unit, interrelated and highly complex. While the mysteries of this connection will likely be studied for many years to come, we know that a positive attitude, good relationships, and contemplative pastimes like yoga and meditation will help reduce stress and return your cortisol levels to normal.

Why wait another day to implement some positive changes in your life? A well-rounded approach to stress and cortisol control will leave you looking younger and feeling healthier and more vibrant.

Lorna Vanderhaeghe, MSC

A health journalist, Vanderhaeghe as been researching and writing on the subject of nutritional medicine for over 20 years. She is past editor in chief of Healthy Living Guide and Alive magazine. Lorna is the author of A Smart Woman's Guide to Hormones, A Smart Woman's Guide to Weight Loss, A Smart Woman's Guide to Heart Health, the A-Z Woman’s Guide to Vibrant Health and many more.