Cortisol plays an important role in our bodies and is vital for life. However managing this hormone is sometimes difficult for a lot of people, it’s not about eliminating but balancing. In today’s society we have an ever growing amount of stress in our day to day lives which increases our levels of cortisol, which is why it’s often referred to as the ‘Stress Hormone’. High levels of cortisol isn’t good for our bodies, so learning to understand and manage this hormone is vital for overall health. Along with having too much, having too little also can cause problems. In this blog we will look at what cortisol is, how it affects the body and ways to ensure your hormone health stays balanced.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone and is produced by the adrenal glands, you have one in either kidney. The pituitary gland, located inside the brain, regulates the amount of cortisol released by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is best known for producing the ‘fight or flight’ response but along with that helps to maintain blood pressure, immune function and the body's anti-inflammatory processes.
Cortisol secretions peak in the early morning, gradually decreasing over the day to very low levels during the evening and at night. A study in Sweden found that women have higher cortisol levels than men in the morning but in the evening levels are closely matched. Cortisol secretions also increase as we age and, in general, higher cortisol levels are associated with aging and disease.
Too Much Cortisol
As mentioned above too much cortisol can cause health complications. Symptoms include:
- Thin, fragile skin that takes a long time to heal
- Weight gain, predominantly around the abdomen and face
- Women can experience facial hair and irregular menstruation
Too much cortisol can also have the following effects on the body:
- Impaired brain function – poor memory and a feeling of “brain fog”
- Increase in susceptibility to viruses – cortisol dampens your immune system so you are more at risk of catching something
- Tiredness – the interruption of hormone functions and poor sleep can make you feel fatigued
- Weight gain – cortisol causes weight to be stored around the abdomen and face
- Chronic health problems – constant waves of cortisol can lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease.
The reason for too much cortisol in your body could be:
- The pituitary gland is releasing too much due to a tumour or excess growth of the glands
- A tumour in the adrenal gland is causing an overproduction of cortisol
- A tumour somewhere else in the body also involved in cortisol production
- High levels of stress
Too Little Cortisol
Signs of having the opposite, too little cortisol can be:
- Constant tiredness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
The reason for too little cortisol in your body could be:
- The pituitary gland is not sending proper signals to produce cortisol, known as hypopituitarism
- Addison’s disease which is a low production of cortisol by the adrenal glands.
Stress & Cortisol
When you experience something stressful, part of your brain - the amygdala - sounds the alarm. Your sympathetic nervous system is alerted and put into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Epinephrine (adrenaline) spreads through the body and increases heart rate, sends more blood to your muscles and vital organs, and opens up airways in your lungs to increase oxygen capacity and brain alertness. All of this happens almost instantaneously so that your body can react to danger. After this initial reaction period, the adrenal glands release cortisol. Typically, once the stressful situation passes cortisol levels reduce back to normal levels.
Along with stress increasing our levels of cortisol other factors such as caffeine, alcohol and sleep deprivation can also push our levels to high.
Studies have shown caffeine increases cortisol secretions in people who are at rest or in mentally stressful situations. Cortisol levels after consuming caffeine can be as high as during an acute stress attack, particularly in someone who isn’t a daily coffee drinker. You can build tolerance to cortisol release. This is why it’s important to factor in how much caffeine you are consuming during the day between coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks and supplements. For healthy adults, it is recommended that you consume no more than 3mg of caffeine per kg of body weight per serve with a maximum intake of 400mg a day.
Heavy alcohol consumption can cause increases in cortisol secretions. Intoxication makes the body feel as though it is under stress which stimulates a release of cortisol. Research has found withdrawing from the effects of alcohol increases cortisol production also because researchers believe that a high level of intoxication can cause a state of general stress, which can stimulate cortisol release and suddenly stopping alcohol consumption can cause an even higher level of stress for the drinker.
Sleep affects the release of hormones. Studies show that people who are sleep deprived with only four hours of sleep per night have elevated cortisol levels in the evening. These cortisol levels also decrease six times slower than people who aren’t sleep deprived.
Cortisol & Weight
Weight gain and the inability to lose weight is one of the most unwelcome symptoms of too much cortisol in the body. The excess weight usually sits around the abdomen and or face. Cortisol increases appetite which adds to the weight gain, but it also tells the body’s metabolism to store fat which makes it harder to shift.
Reducing Cortisol Levels
Reducing elevated cortisol levels is important to avoid triggering other health problems. There are lifestyle changes you can make that will reduce your cortisol and stress levels such as:
- Use deep breathing techniques in stressful situations
- Stop and think
- Exercise more
- Eat a healthy diet
- Mindfulness and meditation practices
- Make sure you are getting an adequate amount of sleep