What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is one of the glucocorticoids made by the adrenal glands. It acts on almost all cells in the body, regulating several vital processes including:
- Blood sugar levels
- Converting food into energy
- Memory formation
- Blood pressure
- Diurnal rhythm (sleep/wake cycle)
In healthy people, cortisol levels rise and fall in a predictable cycle that aligns with our natural circadian rhythms. Levels peak first thing in the morning helping us to wake up and providing energy and motivation to start the day. Cortisol levels gradually fall after about 8am and continue to do so throughout the day allowing us to easily fall asleep by the evening.
The Stress Response
Cortisol is also part of the stress response. The stress response is essential to our survival and has kept us alive throughout evolution. When we encounter something stressful, our cortisol levels temporarily increase along with adrenaline, helping us to handle the stressful event, before returning to normal. It also helps us to form strong memories of the event that protect us from harm in the future. This phenomenon is well known as the fight or flight response. It allows the body to prioritise processes which help you to think fast and act quickly.
Whilst the stress response is an ancient evolutionary response, modern-day stressors include things like financial worries, driving in busy traffic, or arguing with your spouse. Physiological conditions can also trigger a stress response. You might have a relatively stress-free life but anything that disturbs homeostasis in your body such as an allergy, infection, or poor blood sugar control, puts your body under stress and into fight or flight mode. For example, cortisol is released when blood sugar drops below a safe level, triggering a process called gluconeogenesis which increases blood sugar levels. It is also released to suppress the immune system, acting as a powerful anti-inflammatory in times of physiological stress.
Chronic Stress and the Symptoms of High Cortisol
If you have a stressful life or live with a chronic disease, your adrenal glands are continuously producing high levels of cortisol. This is like living in a constant state of high alert and it can have serious consequences.
Exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones over a long period of time can negatively impact almost every aspect of function in the body. This increases your risk of multiple conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression and obesity.
High cortisol can prevent optimum sleep. Many people with high levels of cortisol report being able to fall asleep without too much trouble but then waking up just a few hours later feeling wide awake. If they do manage to get back to sleep, they wake up in the morning feeling tired and low in motivation to start the day. Day to day, high stress can lead to mood instability and feelings of anxiety.
Depending on what is causing it, high cortisol can cause a number of symptoms in the body.
Signs and symptoms of high cortisol include:
- Weight gain, especially around the midsection and upper back
- Weight gain and rounding of the face
- Thinning skin
- Easy bruising
- Flushed face
- Slowed healing
- Muscle weakness
- Severe fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- High blood pressure
- Weakened ability to fight infection
- Poor digestion
Signs and Symptoms of High Cortisol in Females
Stress can affect men and women differently through its links to sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone. Interestingly, the body uses the same major building block for both sex hormones and cortisol. This building block is something you will have heard of- it’s called cholesterol!
Symptoms of high cortisol in females include:
- Low sex drive
- Weight gain (especially around the tummy)
- Brain fog
- Imbalances in other important hormones such as DHEA, oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone
- Missed periods and fertility problems
- Loss of muscle and bone
- Mood swings and depression
- Hair and skin problems
- Thyroid imbalances
High Cortisol and Weight Gain
Studies have shown that people with abdominal obesity have higher cortisol levels. This is because there is a strong relationship between the nervous system (which regulates the stress response) and energy homeostasis. Energy homeostasis is a dynamic process in which the body maintains more or less constant blood sugar levels whilst also ensuring it stores fat in reserve for times where food is scarce. It involves a complex network of hormones which control our eating behaviours, activity levels, and metabolic rate.
Cortisol is known to increase the consumption of foods high in fat and sugar which explains why some people tend to eat when they’re stressed. It’s thought that there are some people who respond highly to cortisol and are more susceptible to stress eating and weight gain whereas others are ‘low responders’ and are therefore less likely to gain weight when stressed. Interestingly, high responders to cortisol exhibit reactive coping strategies to stress whereas low responders exhibit proactive coping strategies. These complex traits influence eating behaviour and lifestyle and contribute to an individual’s propensity for weight gain and obesity.
How to Reduce Stress and Cortisol Levels
If you’re struggling to manage stress in your life, there are things that you can try that may help.
Talk about your feelings
Talking with friends and family about how you’re feeling and what you’re stressed about can be a way to blow off steam. It can also help you to understand what’s causing you to be stressed on a deeper level. This process can sometimes change your perception of the things going on in your life which you view as stressful.
Set aside time to relax
There will always be some degree of stress in life but it there is great value in making relaxation a priority. Whatever activity gives you a feeling of calm and contentedness is fine. Here are some ideas!
- Going for a walk or other forms of exercise
- Any activity with friends
- Reading for pleasure
- Going for a massage or other spa activities
- Having a bath with candles
- Listening to music you enjoy
- Spending time with animals
- Spending time in nature – the Japanese call this ‘forest bathing’
- Guided meditation and mindfulness
- Breathing exercises
- Yoga and stretching
Movement and exercise can provide good stress relief. Do what suits your body but keep in mind that gentler forms of exercise such as walking, swimming and yoga may be the best place to start to ensure cortisol levels aren’t exacerbated by stressful high-intensity exercise.
Eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods, fibre, protein and healthy fats allow your body to function the best and maintain normal cortisol levels. Avoid eating sugary or high-starch foods without a source of fibre and protein; this helps you to maintain balanced blood sugar levels and reduced cortisol levels. If you think you have high cortisol levels, it’s not a good idea to go for long periods without eating. Whilst fasting suits some people, it can cause low blood sugar and high cortisol levels in some people. It may suit you better to eat small meals or snacks every 2-3 hours if you have high cortisol.
Supplementing with fish oil, if you don’t eat oily fish regularly, can help to counter the effects of stress. Fish oil is a brilliant source of omega-3 fatty acids which may reduce cortisol levels.
Allowing your body to rest while sleeping is a good way to reduce stress, allowing you to recover mentally and physically. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night and develop a bedtime routine that works for you to optimise relaxation and faster sleep once you are in bed.
Find the right support
If you feel that you can’t cope or manage stress in your life then do reach out to professionals for support.
At NUVI, our goal is to optimise your health in all areas. We understand the impact that stress and high cortisol can have on all aspects of your physical and mental health. Our programme guides and supports you in ways to reduce your stress levels and build habits to make you more resilient for the future.