Cortisol: How To Know When Your Stress Levels Are Too High & What To Do About It
In the rhythm and demands of modern-day living you may find yourself in a state of constant or regular stress.
Not only can this lead to anxiety, depression and other negative mental and emotional states, but it can also have a big impact on your physical wellbeing by way of a hormone called “cortisol”.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is healthy to a point, because it actually causes us to get things done and channel energy into important projects.
But too much cortisol can be a major health threat due to the way it impacts your body's systems over the medium to long term.
What is Cortisol?
Produced in your adrenal glands (located at the top of your kidneys), cortisol is vital for human health for a number of essential functions.
It also works in conjunction with your brain to control your mood as well as your levels of fear and motivation.
Physiologically, it also plays an important role in the regulation of your body’s sleep cycle by way of it being released into your bloodstream by your adrenal glands.
It usually reaches a peak in the morning, inciting us to wake up and reaches its lowest level at approximately 3am, when we would normally be experiencing our deepest level of sleep.
Other Key Functions of Cortisol
- Helps manage the body’s use of carbohydrates, fats & proteins
- Regulates blood pressure
- Provides anti-inflammatory effects in order to reduce irritation & pain
- Aids the immune system to address injuries, illness and infections.
You could compare cortisol to a type of natural “alarm system” alerting you to any potential threats and providing enough energy to enable “fight or flight” mode so that you are able to either confront or escape from something that could be dangerous or otherwise negative to your wellbeing in some way.
Once the threat or stressor has passed, under normal circumstances your cortisol levels should naturally decrease along with your heart rate, blood pressure along with your other body systems returning to an unaroused state.
However, if your body produces too much cortisol as a result of high and chronic levels of stress, this can throw these functions out of balance and into chaos…
Effects of High Cortisol
Having elevated cortisol levels for a prolonged period of time has several negative impacts on your health, wellness and optimal mental functioning as it can:
- Interfere with memory & learning
- Decrease immune function & bone density
- Lead to weight gain
- Increase blood pressure
- Put you at a higher risk of heart disease & Type 2 Diabetes
- Reduce libido & fertility.
Signs & Symptoms of High Cortisol
- Gaining weight especially around belly & face
- Acne & skin problems, including thinning of skin
- Bruising easily
- Weakened immunity & slowed healing of injuries & infections
- Problems concentrating & focusing
- High Blood Pressure
In severe prolonged cases of high stress and physical exhaustion, many people experience more serious and potentially debilitating symptoms commonly referred to as Adrenal Fatigue.
Learn more in 5 Ways To Heal Adrenal Fatigue
How To Reduce Stress & Cortisol Levels Naturally
With stress being the main precursor to cortisol, the same measures that can help to reduce stress levels will normally also help to lower your cortisol levels.
The amount of sleep you get, along with the regularity and depth of it can significantly influence the levels of cortisol in your body.
Here are some key things you can do to both increase the quantity and improve the quality of your sleep
- Keep a regular schedule & go to sleep at the same time each night
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon or evening (consume in the morning only)
- Limit distractions & technology use before bedtime (The “blue” light from screens can inhibit sleep!)
- Diffuse pure essential oils like; Lavender, Vetiver & Roman Chamomile next to your bed, to help you fall asleep as well as to encourage deeper, uninterrupted sleep. Learn more in How To Sleep Better With Essential Oils
Read more in Sleep And Dreams: The Greatest Cosmic Gift
The body actually interprets exercise as a form of stress and consequently will stimulate the release of cortisol into your systems. For the most part, the fitter you are, the better your body is at handling physical stress and will tend to release less cortisol when exercising.
However, after periods of extreme “high intensity” exercise or physical strain even the fittest of people can experience a surge in cortisol levels.
It’s important to find the right balance and type of physical activity so that you can take advantage of all the benefits exercise offers without causing your cortisol levels to go through the roof.
Low-Intensity Steady State Cardio (LISS)
Not only will this type of exercise help to reduce your stress levels but these “low impact” forms also put less strain on your body compared to the more high impact types and by the same token will generally not elevate your cortisol levels too much.
Here are some of the best low impact exercises that you can do for between 10-30 minutes each day depending on your level of fitness and health:
- Walking briskly
- Bike riding
- Light jogging
Other benefits of these low impact forms of exercise is that they can also help to:
- Strengthen your cardiorespiratory system
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Decrease blood pressure
- Improve blood flow & circulation
Relaxation & Mindfulness
Relaxing both our body and mind is a surefire way to reduce stress in your life and the associated high levels of cortisol.
The following activities are fantastic in this regard:
- Tai Chi
- Qi gong
- Earthing (walking outside barefoot e.g. on the sand at the beach, on the grass at the park).
Our minds are often the biggest threat to our peace and can cause us to get ourselves into very stressed out states and suffer from anxiety.
Even if there is no physical threat or stressor present, just thinking “stressful” thoughts can cause the same physiological response and trigger a release of cortisol.
Although everyone is different and different types of thoughts will have different effects on different people, here are some common themes that can cause you to get stressed out mentally, emotionally and physically:
By practising a form of conscious stress reduction, such as mindfulness meditation, you can learn and train yourself to become more self-aware and recognise stressful thoughts for what they are.
This then gives you tools to deal with them and can go a long way to helping you relax both your mental and physical state and correspondingly lead to a reduction of cortisol.
Learn more in 7 Ways To Deal With Anxiety & Find Inner Peace
Unfortunately, many people find themselves in toxic relationships in one form or another with family, partners, friends or work situations which can cause huge amounts of stress and tension.
Depending on the nature of each relationship, some will be able to be improved and brought up to a healthy "less stress provoking" state and for others it might actually be best for all parties concerned that the relationship take its course and come to an end.
Learn more in How To Heal Toxic Relationships Before They Break
In a nutshell, reducing the stress levels (or your reaction to them) in all areas of your life is key in also reducing your cortisol and preventing any health problems down the track.
Learn more in Stress Management Without Harmful Addictions
Tolman Self Care.