Modern life is stressful. We constantly have important things on our mind; examinations, children, long working days, etc. You know how it is, and you know how it feels when they start stressing you out. In case you’re not sure what’s happening inside your body when you experience a frustrating situation, this is what’s happening: your cortisol levels are rising. If care is not taken, it can cause chronic ailments.
When your stressed, the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This causes nerve and hormonal signals to propel your adrenal glands in the upper part of the kidneys to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol .
What is cortisol and what does it do?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, more specifically a glucocorticoid that is secreted by the adrenal glands (a hormone is a chemical that is made in one part of the body but passes into the bloodstream and has effects on other parts of the body) .
We have two small adrenal glands that are on top of each kidney. We all need cortisol to live, and small doses released into the body can have positive effects, such as:
- Help the body balance the effect of insulin to keep blood sugar at the right level and use sugar and fat for energy
- Helping the body control and respond to stress
- Help regulate blood pressure
- Help regulate the immune system
However, the continued high level of cortisol in your body has negative effects. The condition in which the level of cortisol in your body is too high for a long period of time is called Cushing’s syndrome.
Some causes of Cushing’s syndrome are:
- Chronic Stress – Cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone.”
- Adrenal Problems – There are several rare disorders of the adrenal glands that can cause high levels of cortisol.
- Steroid medications – Some people take steroid medications that are similar to cortisol.
- Excessive consumption of alcohol.
- Severe depression.
What are the symptoms of elevated cortisol levels (Cushing’s syndrome)?
Mood swings – such as being more irritable, depressed or anxious than normal.
It is normal to feel cranky or low once in a while, but if you feel like you are constantly depressed and / or anxious, then you may be experiencing the consequences of long-term effects on the production of cortisol, serotonin and dopamine.
High levels of cortisol cause energy to be withdrawn from the gastrointestinal tract, decrease the production of enzymes needed to digest food, and reduce the absorption of minerals and nutrients. And in fact, stress is one of the reasons that the digestive system does not function properly.
Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure
As we have learned, high levels of cortisol can be caused by a very stressful lifestyle. Too much stress can raise blood pressure, which can in turn lead to an increased risk of heart disease.
The production of cortisol is naturally high at dawn to help you wake up. However, people who chronically stress their adrenal glands to produce excess cortisol, alter their cortisol concentrations so that it’s low in the morning when they wake up, instead of high.
Cortisol stimulates appetite and cravings for dense sweet foods in calories and foods high in carbohydrates. So if you have high levels of cortisol in your body over a long period of time, chances are you are going to want to eat fat and high calorie foods.
Aging of the skin and wrinkles
As if high levels of cortisol did not do enough damage on the inside, they also dehydrate the skin. Dehydrated skin means premature wrinkles.
Other symptoms include:
– Pain and discomfort – especially back pain.
– Increased susceptibility to infections – Cortisol can weaken the effectiveness of the immune system
– Facial hair in women.
– Signs of stretching purple / pink (stretch marks) – similar to those seen in some pregnant women.
In most cases (other than when steroid medication is the cause), the symptoms develop gradually. The diagnosis is often not clear for quite some time, because most of the symptoms can also be caused by other common problems.
It is worth noting that the fact that you may be experiencing one or even some of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have high levels of cortisol. The above symptoms may be associated with other medical conditions. It is always best to visit your doctor if you are worried about how you feel.
If you feel like you are experiencing any of these symptoms then it may be time to take a look at your lifestyle and the ways in which you can modify them in order to lower your cortisol levels.
How to lower cortisol production
A good workout is a natural stress-reliever. If I feel frustrated or angry, then I know that running is safe to clear my head. The exercise also helps increase muscle mass and increase the brain ‘s production of serotonin and dopamine, which are brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression.
200 mg of caffeine is said to raise cortisol levels in the blood by 30% in an hour. Try alternative caffeine-free drinks for two weeks, and see how you feel.
A deeper and longer sleep
A good night’s sleep allows your body to relax and cortisol levels decrease.
Keep your blood sugar level stable
Both donuts and cookies are delicious, but try to avoid eating too much of them. Excess refined sugar and simple carbohydrates increase insulin production.
Enjoy eating little and often, foods that are balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats, such as olive oil, nuts and seeds (nuts and seeds have surprising health benefits).
Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low-carbohydrate diets.
Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking lots of water . Drinking a glass when you wake up and before going to bed will help keep your cortisol levels down.
Taking anti-stress supplements
There are a number of plants and herbs that can be used to treat stress and anxiety such as St. John’s wort, chamomile and oats.
Meditate or listen to relaxation tapes
When it comes to relaxing and reducing cortisol levels go to calm with soft music or do mediation.
It’s easy to get stuck in a stressful lifestyle. We can not always help our circumstances and what we have to deal with. However, you can take methods, like the above, to help you deal with stress, and therefore keep your cortisol levels low.
But for now, you do not have to do anything drastic. Just take a deep breath, light some scented candles and relax. Life is too short to sweat the small stuff. For more useful information on how to relieve stress and anxiety see these articles: