A certain amount of stress in alcohol and drug recovery is inevitable. Stress can be motivating as long as it isn’t overwhelming. When stress is chronic, however, it can cause a host of health problems. The experience of being stressed is closely linked to a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland and released during times of stress. In a healthy body, cortisol release happens for brief periods as part of the fight-or-flight system. In scientific terms, this is called the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis), or stress response system.

Poor sleep, a high inflammation diet, and excessive alcohol intake can cause the stress response system to produce too much cortisol. With excessive stress hormone production, you’ll feel more on edge. It can be difficult to focus for extended periods. Overall, your recovery will feel more challenging if you’re chronically stressed. In the rest of this article, we’re going to take a closer look at cortisol’s role in chronic stress and how to reduce symptoms for a smoother and successful alcohol and drug recovery.


Symptoms of Chronic Stress and Elevated Cortisol Levels

When you need to escape a shark attack, cortisol is your friend. It blocks out thinking processes that distract from the goal of escaping to safety. When you’re trying to parent your kids, enjoy the company of your partner, or perform at work, elevated cortisol can be a distraction and a hindrance.

The adverse effects of high cortisol levels in the body accumulate over time. In the short term, you may get more headaches, indigestion, or notice an increased appetite. High blood sugar, elevated blood pressure, and rapid weight gain in the face, gut, and chest can also occur.

As time goes on, you may notice that you bruise more easily, feel weak, experience muscle cramps, or have a red/flushed face. You may be more irritable and have worse depression and anxiety. Other symptoms of chronic stress can include low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and an irregular menstrual cycle.

Recovering alcoholics can tend to produce too much cortisol. For these individuals, cortisol production gets turned on but isn’t able to turn off. The stress response system, or HPA axis, control when cortisol is released and how long it takes for levels to return to normal.

Cortisol release is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as ‘fight or flight.’ Returning levels to normal are the responsibility of the parasympathetic nervous system, also referred to as ‘rest and digest.’ For recovering addicts with chronic stress, the parasympathetic system never shuts off cortisol production. This leads to worse overall mental health and all the not-so-fun things that come along with it.


Negative Effects of Chronic Stress on Health

In addition to poor mental health, elevated cortisol and chronic stress can weaken the immune system. The lining of your digestive tract can also become compromised due to stress. A permeable gut lining weakens the immune system and may exacerbate mental health issues.

The lining of your gut is only a single cell thick. It’s the protective barrier that blocks inflammation from sneaking into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, inflammatory agents can negatively affect the brain.

Studies show that elevated cortisol levels are linked to low levels of healthy gut bacteria. The presence of the bacteria reduces permeability. Because your gut lining is only a single cell thick, it relies on the help of friendly gut bacteria to colonize and reinforce it. Healthy gut bacteria are also responsible for producing large quantities of neurotransmitters, primarily serotonin.

Your gut bacteria also has a big impact on weight control. High sugar intake and alcohol consumption not only weaken the gut but also lead to higher rates of weight gain. Bad bacteria, the kind that promotes weight gain, thrives on carbs and sugar. Ideally, you want more of the good bacteria and less of the bad. The result will be a healthier body and a stronger mind for an easier recovery from alcohol.


Recovery is more manageable with a normalized stress response. Here are a few things you can do to reduce stress and start feeling more relaxed:

1. Eat A Low Inflammation Diet

A low inflammation diet allows the intestinal lining to heal and for healthy gut bacteria to prosper. In fact, one of the most effective ways to reduce stress is through diet. Fast food meals like Burger King are soaked in high-oleic oils and trans fat. It’s also mostly carbs and sugar (check the sugar content on a bottle of Heinz catsup, yikes). Sugar and carbs, as you know, fuel bad bacteria and starve good bacteria. Avoiding fast food and eating dense leafy greens, grass-fed beef, olive and coconut oil is an easy way to make big strides towards a smoother recovery from drug and alcohol misuse.

2. Yoga

Yoga is meditation in motion. A single yoga session can lower cortisol levels significantly. It can also dramatically boost GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) levels in the brain. GABA is the primary neurotransmitter that’s responsible for calming you down when you’re stressed.

Drinking alcohol also triggers GABA activity. Since alcohol consumption is no longer an option, yoga can be a great replacement therapy. The deep breathing of yoga helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve communicates information from the gut to the brain. When you breathe deeply, pressure is applied to the vagus nerve, thus activating the parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system slows breathing, lowers heart rate, and promotes relaxation.

3. Limit Your Screen Time

Staring at computer screens and smartphones all day increases cortisol production. For one, it can be disruptive to sleep, and poor sleep is notorious for increasing cortisol. The blue light in electronic monitors is too stimulating to look at as bedtime approaches. To compensate for an over-stimulating world filled with electronic devices, spend time in nature. Hitting the hiking trail, even just once a week, can help to offset the stress hormone production triggered by electronic devices. The Japanese call spending time in nature “forest bathing.” The research regarding its beneficial effects on stress reduction is thoroughly convincing.


Without the burden of alcohol and drug addiction weighing you down, it can become easier to feel how the body responds to different foods and activities. As you try out some of the advice in this article, pay close attention to changes in how you feel. Everyone’s body chemistry is different. Keep trying different strategies until you find what works for you. Going the road alone can be hard. If you or someone you know is having a difficult time staying clean, Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is available to answer any questions. Call us today at 602-535-6468 or email us at info@stonewallinstitute.com