What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is an important hormone that helps regulate the way your body responds to stress. Cortisol is released when the brain senses a stressor, and its major function is to help your body respond to stressful situations. Cortisol is released in times of duress to help us fight or run from danger. When cortisol is released, it causes blood sugar levels to rise and fatty acids to be stored for energy. This helps you feel more alert and energized during stressful times.
The release of cortisol requires a concerted set of events involving the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, and such collective response system is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain are responsible for detecting the levels of cortisol in the blood. When the cortisol levels drop the brain makes adjustments to the amounts of hormones it makes and such adjustment in hormonal levels is sensed by the adrenal glands, on top of the kidneys, as a signal to produce cortisol.
How Does Cortisol Affect the Body?
Cortisol is transported throughout the body and almost every cell in the body has receptors on their surfaces for cortisol. This highlights the importance of cortisol in our daily lives. Cortisol plays a vital role in preparing the body to react to a given situation. For example, the altered levels of cortisol are critical in shutting down the unnecessary functions when the body is on high alert. Various important bodily processes, such as digestive or reproductive systems, immune systems, or even your growth processes, are heavily influenced by cortisol. People with higher levels of cortisol tend to be more stressed, and people with chronically high levels of cortisol may experience a range of health issues.
Why Should You Care About Cortisol Levels?
When cortisol levels are high for an extended period of time, it can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease and depression. Elevated levels of cortisol may be associated with a serious condition known as Cushing’s syndrome. Most symptoms associated with the Cushing’s syndrome include fatty deposits around the shoulder region, purple-colored stretch marks, weight gain, and slow healing of injuries.
On the other hand, low levels of cortisol levels are associated with Addison’s disease which is typically characterized by a darkening of the scars and skin folds, fatigue, muscle weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss, low blood pressure, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
Although prolonged changes in the cortisol levels have severe health consequences, momentary increased levels of cortisol have positive effects. Elevated levels of cortisol for a short time provide heightened alertness, energy for survival reasons, and helps in maintaining homeostasis in the body.
How to Manage Stress to Improve Cortisol Levels?
The cortisol release response is not the same for everyone. Some experience a greater spike in cortisol as opposed to others when they experience the same stressful situation. It is, therefore, important to learn to manage stress to maintain healthy levels of cortisol. Here are some tips to maintain healthy levels of cortisol:
1. Get enough sleep
Prolonged lack of sleep results in increased levels of cortisol which will affect your day-to-day activities. It is very important to get an ample amount of sleep to keep life in order. It’s not just the amount of sleep but the quality of sleep also matters. Even minor interruptions in sleep might shoot up the cortisol levels.
2. Get enough exercise
Usually, there’s a surge in cortisol levels after a session of intense workout. However, the levels of cortisol go back to normal around bedtime. Such a short-term spike in the cortisol levels helps coordinate the growth of the body to meet the challenge. People who workout regularly have lower cortisol responses. However, one should bear in mind that over-training does more harm than good.
3. Avoid stressful thoughts
Stressful thoughts act as a signal for cortisol release. In a study involving 122 adults, it was found that the cortisol levels shot up for over when asked to write about previous stressful experiences as opposed to writing about positive life experiences. This shows how important it is to identify stressful thoughts and avoid them. You need to train yourself to avoid thinking about past stressful situations.
4. Eat healthy
Diet has a major impact on cortisol levels. Foods rich in probiotics (friendly and useful bacteria) and prebiotics (food for probiotics) are very well known to lower cortisol levels.
Foods high in sugars can trigger cortisol release. Eating food with high amounts of sugar regularly keeps the level of cortisol elevated. On the other hand, sugar might also help in reducing the cortisol levels as a result of response to a specific stressful event. A balanced diet is key for healthy living.
5. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in fish oil, greatly reduces cortisol levels. A study, conducted over three weeks, showed that the group that took fish oil supplements showed reduced cortisol levels as opposed to the group that didn’t take fish oil supplements.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is a herb that is native to India and has been used for centuries in India as a natural way of reducing cortisol levels. This herb is often used to treat stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Ashwagandha has been studied extensively in clinical trials and has been found to reduce cortisol levels in people with low cortisol. It also is effective for adrenal insufficiency, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Abnormal levels of cortisol in the body for extended periods can severely damage physical and mental health. Make adjustments to your lifestyle, eat healthy, workout regularly, and have a positive outlook on life to keep your cortisol levels in check.