Most of us know that there is a link between stress and cortisol levels but there’s a lot more to this little steroid hormone than you may think.
Cortisol is produced in two ways – in response to stress and as part of our natural sleep and wake cycle. It peaks at about 8am to help us rise and shine and get active for the day.The levels drop throughout the day with the low point happening at around 4am before it ramps up again for our daily wake up call.
Cortisol plays a big role in our stress response. Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down some functions to allow the body to direct all its energy to dealing with the stress. This cortisol reaction is supposed to be short term and just long enough to deal with the source of stress. Unfortunately our lives can be anything but stress free and when stress is chronic this becomes a problem.
How does cortisol affect us ?
- It stimulates glucose production and slows insulin meaning you end up with lots of sugar in your blood. Thats great if you actually have something you’re trying to run away from but not so good when you’re just sitting around feeling stressed about how to pay your bills.
- Cortisol hinders the immune system when levels are high making your body more susceptible to infections and bacteria. Have you noticed how you always get sick when your stressed ?
- It also slows bone formation and decreases calcium absorption so when its too high there’s no bone growth and no muscle growth.
- It causes high blood pressure and decreased blood flow to organs
- Too much or too little cortisol messes up thyroid hormones
- Leads to increased stomach acid and reflux
- Makes us less fertile and more likely to miscarry
- Changes our metabolism and makes us hungry and less able to realise when we are satisfied
Our body has a system that is meant to regulate cortisol levels by shutting down production when things get too high. Unfortunately when we are stressed all the time the system gets mucked up and can’t regulate properly – kind of like insulin resistance when we flood our bodies daily with sugar. The result is that our cortisol levels become unhealthy and high or low at the wrong time of day leaving us feeling out of kilter.
Ways to lower cortisol
- Regular exercise – not marathon running – try yoga, pilates, walking, stretching
- Meditation, relaxation, breathing exercises
- Get enough sleep
- Listen to music you love
- Drink black tea – about 3 cups per day
- Get a massage
- Learn some stress management techniques
- Avoid all alcohol
- Eat nutrient dense food – especially those high in magnesium, vitamin C and B vitamins.
- See a naturopath for help doing all of the above ! There are some great herbal medicines and supplements that can support you back to healthy cortisol levels.