Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and is well-known for triggering the “fight or flight” response in our bodies when we are stressed. However, cortisol is also responsible for regulating a wide range of processes throughout the body.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands, which is then released into the blood and transported around the body.
What does cortisol do?
Almost all our cells contain receptors for cortisol, meaning it plays an important role in several things your body does. For example, cortisol:
- Manages how your body uses proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
- Regulates blood pressure
- Increases blood sugar
- Keeps inflammation down
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy
The short-term release of cortisol can give your body energy to fight or flee from a stressor, but it is possible for our cortisol levels to become unbalanced.
Too much stress
Usually, cortisol levels balance when the stress your body was reacting to passes. However, when cortisol levels are too high for too long, the hormone can have a negative impact on your body.
There are some health issues associated with high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period, including:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Mood irregularities
In women, this can impact periods causing them to become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether.
Cortisol levels have also been linked to conditions like anxiety or depression.
Managing cortisol levels
There are some lifestyle habits that can help you to manage cortisol levels.
Getting the right amount of sleep can be an effective way to reduce cortisol levels. Several things can be done to optimise your sleep, such as limiting caffeine intake, avoiding nicotine or alcohol, and implementing a regular sleep schedule.
Exercise can increase or decrease cortisol, depending on the intensity. Intense exercise can increase cortisol levels afterwards, which will decrease a few hours later.
However, regular exercise can also help with managing stress and promoting good health, which may help lower cortisol levels.
- Eating a nutritious diet
When trying to lower cortisol levels, it is important to eat a healthy and balanced diet, paying attention to sugar intake. Fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and even dark chocolate are thought to be helpful for managing cortisol.
Similarly, it is important to ear on a regularly because low blood sugar can increase cortisol.
- Staying hydrated
Dehydration has been linked to temporary increases in cortisol levels, meaning it is important to drink enough water throughout the day.
Deep breathing is a simple and effective way to reduce stress. It can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation and lower cortisol levels. Meditation or yoga are just two examples of ways to practice deep breathing.