Have you ever wondered how and why stress can trigger that unmistakable biological response within our bodies, like a racing heart, quickened breath, and tense muscles? It is because we are physically hard-wired to react to stress in a manner designed to protect us from life-threatening dangers.
While we don’t experience the same types of threats that our bodies are genetically predisposed to protect us from, like wild predators, for example, our day-to-day lives are often packed with unrelenting modern-day stressors, like demanding jobs or caring for a family. As a result, many of us feel like we are in a constant state of physical and emotional attack – for which we can thank our stress hormone, cortisol.
Why does stress take such a physical toll on our bodies, what role does cortisol play in managing our body’s reaction to stress, and how can you proactively manage your body’s cortisol levels?
Here is everything you should know about your stress hormone, cortisol.
How to balance cortisol levels
What is cortisol?
When you are faced with a perceived threat or nerve-wracking situation, like a close encounter with a wild animal or a closely-skirted car accident, a small region toward the base of your brain, called the hypothalamus, sets off a full-body alarm. This alarm triggers your adrenal glands, which are located above your kidneys, to release a wave of hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol.
Cortisol is your primary stress hormone, and it plays an important role when you are faced with stressful situations.
Some of the key functions of cortisol include:
- Raising the amount of glucose (sugars) in your bloodstream
- Assisting your brain in using glucose more efficiently
- Withholding non-essential bodily functions in life-threatening situations
- Affecting areas of the brain that control fear, mood, and drive
- Increases the availability of chemicals that repair tissues
- Altering the response of the immune system
- Inflammation reduction
So, small increases in cortisol are necessary when dealing with high-stress situations. It can give us a much-needed burst of energy, a heightened memory, and reduced sensitivity to pain. Without cortisol, human survival would be nearly impossible.
Too much cortisol, however, can do a number on your body, and when levels remain too high for prolonged periods of time, it can ultimately lead to unwanted problems.
What happens when cortisol levels remain high?
Several factors can result in the development of high cortisol levels – pituitary and adrenal gland issues, and certain medications, for example – but ongoing stress is oftentimes the main contributing factor to consistently raised cortisol levels. Why? Because when your body is in a constant state of fight or flight, and cortisol levels stay elevated for longer than is necessary for survival, the hormone can build up and wreak havoc on your health.
Research shows that increased cortisol levels caused by ongoing stress can lead to:
- Weight gain
- Increased blood pressure
- Impaired brain functioning
- Decreased immune functioning
How can you lower cortisol levels naturally?
Learning ways to lower cortisol levels when dealing with your day-to-day life is equally as important as the role cortisol plays in aiding your body when it feels threatened. Here are a few ways to help keep your stress levels down and your cortisol hormone in a normal rhythm:
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Shoot for seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per day and avoid caffeine in the evening.
- Exercise: Research shows that moderate exercise during the day can help reduce cortisol levels in the evening.
- Practice mindfulness: Becoming aware of stress and stress triggers can help you mitigate that overwhelming feeling and help you proactively cope with stressful situations.
- Learn relaxation techniques: Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, massage, and yoga are shown to reduce cortisol.
- Enjoy yourself: Doing what you enjoy, whether it be a hobby or spending time with friends, can help to keep cortisol levels low. In this case, laughter really can be the best medicine.
- Invest in healthy relationships: Spending time with loved ones and letting go of negativity can lower stress and cortisol levels. Even caring for a pet has been shown to be a powerful stress reliever.
- Maintain a healthy diet: Try to avoid excess sugar and eat a diet full of vegetables, fruits, and lots of water.
- Take valuable supplements: Research shows that taking certain supplements, like ashwagandha, can help to reduce cortisol levels.
While cortisol is essential when faced with high-stress situations, too much of it can wreak havoc on your body. So, do what you can to identify the major stressors in your life and take steps to manage the impact that they take on you and your body. You will be rewarded with more energy, an elevated mood, and improved health overall.