Stress: the bane of modern existence! Here's all you need to know about cortisol – aka the stress hormone. What it is, when it's produced, the concern of chronic high cortisol levels and how you keep them down.
You know that boost of energy you feel when you are confronted with something threatening? Whether it’s a near-accident or even a fast-approaching deadline, that feeling is your body producing cortisol in response to stress. It’s kept us and our ancestors alive for centuries, but in modern times, heightened cortisol levels are are too common and just too high. Understanding more about this hormone can help you keep your health in check.
WHAT IS CORTISOL?
Cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands and is also known as the stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain and fuels the ‘fight or flight’ response when we encounter a crisis. All your other bodily functions pause during this time in order to focus all energy on the problem at hand.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Of course, apart from helping us get out of stressful situations, cortisol is responsible for plenty of other vital functions.
- Helps the brain make new memories
- Makes us feel alert and awake
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeps inflammation down
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
- Controls your sleep cycle
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and, in turn, restores balance afterwards
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU HAVE TOO MUCH STRESS?
Once the stressor has resolved, your cortisol levels should go down as you calm down. Your heart rate, blood pressure and other body systems triggered by your ‘fight or flight’ response return to normal. But what if that doesn’t happen? If your cortisol levels don’t go down, it can trigger the following:
- Anxiety and depression
- Heart disease
- Memory and concentration problems
- Problems with digestion
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight gain
If your body produces too much cortisol because of type 2 diabetes, medication, an adrenal gland disorder or tumour, it can lead to Cushing’s Disease. Cushing’s disease can present itself as weight gain, bruises, acne, high blood pressure, mood issues and muscle weakness. Conversely, if your body produces too little cortisol it could mean you are suffering from Addison’s Disease which then could result in sudden weight loss, darkened skin, dizziness, and fatigue.
Managing stress can become even more important as we age. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, we may produce too much of the stress hormone and it takes longer for levels to go back to normal. In addition, studies have found that years of stress can damage the hippocampus – the part of the brain that deals with memories – resulting in poor memory or even Alzheimer’s as we get older.
HOW TO GET A HANDLE ON YOUR CORTISOL LEVELS
There may be underlying problems that can trigger too much or too little cortisol, but for many of us the key is stress management.
1. Regular exercise
Exercise is important for our overall health, but also our emotional wellbeing. The bonus here is that the less you do more often, the more consistent the effect is. While those hour long sessions 3 times a week at the gym won't go wasted, regular exercise daily will truly help lower your cortisol levels and manage stress. Although with that in mind, it’s also important not to push yourself too hard and cause damage to your body. It’s all about balance.
Not getting enough sleep causes an immeasurable number of health issues, but poor, disrupted or insufficient sleep will result in too much cortisol. You've heard it before, 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily is ideal and will help keep your cortisol at a normal level. While a good night's sleep is a mystery to some - and women in menopause more-so – good sleep hygiene is critical. You might say' i can't sleep because I'm too stressed, but it's not the catch 22 you might think. By following some basic sleep rules, you should find you wake up more refreshed and ready for the day. Here are some more tips for better sleep.
3. Find a relaxation technique that works for you
There’s plenty of evidence that points to relaxation techniques controlling the levels of cortisol in your body. Here are just a few that have proven to be effective:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Massage therapy
- Mindful movement
- Listening to music you love
4. (Try to) Be positive
This is definitely easier said than done - especially in this particularly stressy time, but... research shows that adopting a positive disposition not only lowers your cortisol levels but also improves heart health, immune system and lowers your blood pressure. Taking up a hobby that you enjoy, laughing and spending time outdoors can all help that positivity bloom.