Cortisol and how stress impacts it
If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve had run-ins with stress. While it doesn’t take much to trigger it, stress doesn’t just happen alone. It requires the help of cortisol. But what does cortisol have to do with how stress functions? A lot! and we’ll explain it all. In this blog, we’re simplifying this complex hormone and its relationship with stress.
Cortisol + your body.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released by the adrenal glands on top of each kidney. It sends messages throughout your body, telling it what to do and when to do it1. This function is critical to stress. It initiates a “fight-or-flight response,” slowing down physiological processes you don’t need to survive and accelerating the ones you do during the moment3. In stressful or threatening situations, cortisol readies your body for what’s to come by regulating your body’s stress response and sending this response to your organs. It also plays many roles in the body, such as regulating sleep cycles, increasing blood sugar, and managing blood pressure11.
Your body’s response to the stress hormone isn’t meant to be a long-term solution. Cortisol released by the body over time can impair your health.
Stress and its impact on cortisol.
When stressed, cortisol is released to help regulate your body’s response to tension. Stress can impact our nervous, immune, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems and can be short or long-term. The higher the cortisol levels, the more likely your body will experience stress. If cortisol is sent throughout your body in large doses, it can have an impact on your overall health2. If cortisol levels fall too low, it can also have an impact. It’s best to think of the Goldilocks’ porridge saga. Too much and too little won’t do; your cortisol levels must be balanced.
Stress and its indicators vary from person to person. However, researchers have found that there are common signs that individuals with higher-than-normal cortisol levels share1:
• Weight gain – When cortisol rises, it elevates insulin levels triggering a decline in blood sugar. When this happens, you’re more likely to crave unhealthy food choices3.
• Meaty shoulders – Excess fat accumulation between your shoulder blades occurs when high cortisol levels are present4.
• Pink or purple stretch marks – Higher cortisol levels over a long period can degrade the collagen in your skin5. Such effects can appear on the abdomen, thighs, arms, and breast areas5.
• Blood sugar – The stress hormone increases blood sugar by releasing glucose reserves1.
• Blood pressure – Cortisol is necessary to balance blood pressure levels. When cortisol increases, blood pressure does as well6.
• Hair growth in all the wrong places – Excess hair growth on the skin and other areas is caused by high levels of cortisol overtime12.
Natural ways to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.
When it comes to reducing tension, it’s best to keep it simple, starting with your everyday routines. The lower your cortisol, the more likely you are to minimize stress. Here are some tips to naturally reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.
• Get some quality z’s – How well you sleep is directly related to stress and increased cortisol levels. Cortisol can throw off your circadian rhythm (your 24-hour clock) telling your body when to sleep and when to wake7. Levels typically decrease at night while increasing during the morning. The opposite happens when you experience restless slumber8.
• Work it out – Consistent exercise has been proven to decrease tension, thanks partly to endorphins. No strenuous activity is required. Endorphins are produced by your brain’s pituitary gland and secreted through your nervous system9. Their superpower? Endorphins can block the effects of cortisol, ultimately reducing stress levels. So even a leisurely walk activates these happy, healthy hormones.
• Yoga – Looking for a way to reach Zen while getting fit? Then this exercise is for you. Studies have shown that yoga may help reduce stress, enhancing your mood and well-being10.
• Do something that brings you joy – Read a book, watch a movie, or gather with friends and family. Stepping away from a stressful situation can help boost your mood and decrease cortisol1.
Foods that support healthy cortisol levels.
Believe it or not, some foods can help regulate cortisol, although it doesn’t apply to frequent fast-food or sugary indulgences. A diet high in processed foods can increase cortisol11. Dieticians recommend these whole foods to help get your stress and cortisol levels in check:
• Try a Mediterranean diet – Fish, poultry, fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy fats are great sustenance when stressed out. The Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of foods that are packed with nutrients your body needs, helping to reduce cortisol11.
• Vitamin B and Omega 3’s – Whole grains and some protein can also help manage cortisol. Beef, chicken, eggs, and organ meats such as liver are great sources of vitamin B. Salmon, tuna, olive oil, and avocados are also winners for foods high in omega-311.
• Magnesium – Need to relax? De-stress with magnesium-rich foods like avocados, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate, and spinach. Their calming abilities can help reduce stress and metabolize cortisol11.
• Protein-rich foods – Beans, poultry, fish, and other meats can help manage your blood sugar, reducing cortisol levels. Other protein-rich foods to try are almonds, chicken breasts, quinoa, tuna, salmon, shrimp, and eggs11.
• Gut-healthy foods – 70 – 80% of our immune system can be found in the gut11.When your immune cells communicate with the microbiome, the bacteria and fungi communicate with your brain. Remember when we mentioned earlier in the blog that one of cortisol’s functions is to help our body respond to stress? If you are feeling stressed, then there is a good chance that cortisol is present. Cortisol is prompted by stress. If your gut is healthy, that message is relayed to your brain.
How to manage stress for optimal health and well-being.
To effectively manage your tension, you must first recognize your stressors and identify the actions that can counteract them. Here are a few ways that may help combat your stress:
• Stay active – Take a walk, dance around your house, play basketball, or do anything to elevate your activity level and endorphins.
• Let out a good chuckle – Laughing feels great, and much like exercise, laughing releases endorphins and gives you something more to smile about.
• Explore green spaces – Studies have shown a connection between exposure to green spaces and a reduction in cortisol.
• Meditate – Give yourself a chance to breathe and reflect in the present, dissolving stress, yet embracing what’s to come.
• Journaling – When stress comes about, write it out. Sometimes writing about how you feel can be easier than verbalizing it.
Managing stress is the key to neutralizing cortisol. Acknowledging your stressors can help develop a deeper understanding of how to work through them. It isn’t always easy, and figuring out what works best for you may take time, but stress and cortisol are manageable! In addition to meditating, exploring lush green spaces, and journaling, options are vast when it comes to stress management. If you’re unsure where to start, click here for more supplementary information regarding stress. By identifying the source of your tension, you now have what it takes to successfully manage stress and cortisol whenever necessary.
1 Cortisol. Cleveland Clinic
2 Stress effects on body. American Psychological Association
3 Can stress make you gain weight? Cleveland Clinic
4 Hump behind the shoulders. Mount Sinai
5 Cushing syndrome. Mayo Clinic
6 Cardiovascular consequences of cortisol excess. National Library of Medicine.
7 Circadian rhythms. National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
8 Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolic conditions. National Library of Medicine.
9 Endorphins. Cleveland Clinic.
10 Benefits of yoga. Mayo Clinic.
11 Eat these foods to reduce stress. Cleveland Clinic.
12 Hirsutism, Cleveland Clinic.