What is Cortisol and How Does it Affect You?

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Cortisol is a stress hormone. It’s normal for your cortisol levels to go up in certain situations. For example, right after a car accident, cortisol and other stress hormones could rise quickly, but then, they should go back down as the immediate threat passes.

In some cases, that might not happen.

For many people, their stress hormone levels are chronically high, and that can impact their mental and physical health in some pretty serious ways.

The following are things to know about cortisol, its function, and what happens when you’re stuck in a state where it’s pervasively high.

The Basics of Cortisol


Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, as was mentioned. It’s secreted by your adrenal glands, and it’s a steroid hormone. It’s responsible for regulating your body’s response to stress, but it does more than that.

Cortisol is involved in blood pressure regulation, immune function, inflammatory response, and insulin release. It also plays a role in glucose metabolism.

Your adrenal glands release it in response to fear or stress you might be experiencing. This is part of the so-called fight or flight response.

Cortisol is one of the glucocorticoids.

How Is It Controlled?


Your cortisol levels may vary throughout the day, but typically for most people, they’re highest in the morning when you first wake up. Gradually your levels should fall through the day. Then, that prepares you for sleep at night.

You can have too much or too little cortisol.

If you have too little because of a problem with your adrenal or pituitary gland, you might not notice symptoms for quite a while. They can be gradual but may include dizziness, fatigue, muscle weakness, and darkening of the skin.

If you have too much cortisol, it can cause Cushing’s syndrome. Symptoms include rapid weight gain in the face, high blood pressure, skin changes, mood swings, and increased thirst.

Other symptoms of high cortisol might include increased abdominal fat, lower immune system response, and slow wound healing.

The Effects of Chronic Stress


Having high levels of cortisol is just one consequence of constant stress. Your body’s stress response normally limits itself, and after a perceived threat passes, your hormone levels return to normal. This includes not only cortisol but also adrenaline. Then your blood pressure and heart rate should go down as well.

Many conditions can impact your stress response, and that means over-exposure to cortisol.

You might react to stress in a certain way because of genetics and also because of your life experiences. For example if you have a history of trauma, you may have ongoing high cortisol levels.

When you have consistently high cortisol levels, it’s linked to a number of health problems including a greater risk of metabolic syndrome, heart attack risk, and stroke risk.

How Can You Control Cortisol?


There are things you can do to normalize your cortisol levels, and a lot of these are lifestyle changes.

Managing stress in a healthy way is so important. It takes time and patience, but you can teach yourself to manage your stress more effectively.

For example, getting exercise, practicing relaxation techniques, and focusing on building relationships are all an important part of managing your stress levels which can in turn keep cortisol in check.

Other ways to naturally lower and manage cortisol include:

  • Get the proper amount of sleep. You need to not only sleep enough but also get quality sleep. If you have disrupted sleep patterns, cut out your daytime caffeine intake and try to exercise during the day. Develop patterns to prepare your body for sleeping, including reducing screen time.
  • Exercising helps, but you don’t want to exercise too much. Intense exercise isn’t always best, but instead, you might want to focus on getting moderate exercise on a regular basis.
  • Your diet plays a role in cortisol levels. For example, sugar triggers cortisol release. Instead, focus on a diet that includes fruits and vegetables along with lean protein. Drinking black and green tea, taking probiotics, and staying hydrated can also help you maintain healthy cortisol levels.
  • Consider taking certain supplements with your doctor’s approval. Fish oil is a good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce cortisol. Ashwagandha is an herbal supplement that can reduce cortisol levels as shown in studies.

Having persistently high cortisol levels isn’t healthy and can mean you have serious health effects as a result. There are steps you can take to lower your cortisol levels and keep them in check.

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