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How Stress Affects Your Cortisol Levels

Themes :
behaviour hormones
Published on 1 February 2021

Do you ever feel like you spend more time stressed than not? Do you find yourself getting tension headaches, clenching your jaw, fighting back anxiety, or dealing with mood swings? Do you have trouble sleeping and concentrating, or do you always feel like you’re about to experience a fight or flight response?

If any of this sounds familiar, you could be dealing with high cortisol levels. Read on to learn more about this hormone and the role it plays in our bodies, for good and for ill.

What Is Cortisol? 

Cortisol is one of the many hormones your brain produces to regulate your moods, circadian rhythms, and more. It’s known as a stress hormone, and it gets a bad rap. But while high levels of stress can be a problem, cortisol is critical for keeping you alive, as we’ll discuss more in a moment.

Cortisol is a sort of natural steroid that increases your heart rate and helps to regulate things like your blood sugar. It’s a product of your adrenal glands, located at the top of your kidneys. In addition to controlling your stress response, it also helps to control your metabolism, immune system function, and more.

Why It’s Important 

If you woke up this morning, you can thank cortisol. It’s one of the hormones your body releases when it’s time for your brain to wake back up from a night’s rest. Cortisol is also one of the hormones that regulates your circadian rhythms and keeps you alert throughout the day. And if any threats appear, cortisol signals your body to kick into fight or flight mode.

Cortisol can have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps keep your body healthier. It has an impact on your cognitive function, memory, and overall brain health. And it helps to regulate your immune system, helping you fight off diseases that try to attack your body.

How It Connects to Stress 

Although cortisol is present in your body’s normal daily functioning, it does increase in response to stress. Whether you’re being chased by a wolf or you’re just giving a class presentation, your cortisol levels rise in response to the heightened stress. It’s a way of preparing your body to run or fight — the body’s two instinctual responses to threats.

When you get stressed, your adrenal glands kick into high gear, producing cortisol to raise your blood pressure in case you need to run. This will prevent you from fainting due to a lack of blood flowing to the brain. It will also tell your body to kick up your blood sugar levels so you have the energy to run or fight if needed.

Problems of a Modern Stress Response

When we were living in caves and hunting our food, cortisol was a critical part of keeping us alive. It gave our bodies the resources they needed to run, fight, and hunt. But the problem is that even though we live in a modern world where those threats are rarely present, our bodies are stuck in the Stone Age.

Any time you get stressed, your body produces that same age-old fight or flight response. And in our modern world, there is no shortage of stressors: job interviews, first dates, school deadlines, bad traffic, delayed flights, and so on. We spend way more time being stressed out than our ancestors, who only had to worry about living through that fight with a bear.

Impact of Long-Term Stress

Although our bodies were designed to handle some short-term stress, we weren’t designed to live with constant stress for months or years on end. When you’re under constant stress, your cortisol levels may begin to interfere with your other brain chemicals, including serotonin and dopamine. You’ll be at higher risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Chronic stress can also take a serious toll on your body, increasing your risk of heart disease. You may begin to have digestive problems, and you could experience more headaches. You may have trouble sleeping, might gain weight, and may have trouble concentrating.

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels 

It may seem like figuring out if you have high cortisol would be easy — check if you’re stressed or not, and if you are, you have high cortisol. But in our no-breaks world, high stress levels can become a sort of standard background noise for our life. There are a few symptoms, aside from constant feelings of stress, that can clue you in that your cortisol levels are high.

If you menstruate, you may notice changes in your cycle, including longer or shorter bleeding days or more or fewer days between each period. You might notice that your sex drive is lower or that you have more frequent mood swings.

If you develop Cushing Syndrome, a potential side effect of high cortisol levels, you may notice that you’re gaining weight — especially around your midsection or face — or that cuts and scratches are slow to heal.

How to Manage Your Stress

One of the best ways to lower your cortisol levels is to manage your stress. Start by becoming aware when you’re stressed and taking time to acknowledge that feeling. This can help you find a baseline of lower stress and take the actions you need to cope with higher stress levels when they happen.

Try to work out regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, which can combat high cortisol levels. Also, focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs. And finally, don’t forget to take time to care for yourself, spending time with people and activities you enjoy.

Keep Your Cortisol Levels in Check

Cortisol plays a critical role in keeping us alive and alert every day. But chronic high cortisol levels can have a serious impact on your health. Our bodies were not built for the kind of constant stress we live with today, and we pay the price. Try to become more aware of your stress levels, and take time to relax when you can, allowing your body to release that stress and return to normal.

If you’d like to discover more ways to improve your overall health, check out the rest of our site.

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