It is hard to deny the fact that most adults feel stressed on a day-to-day basis. Hectic schedules and a chaotic world make it hard to sit still and relax. It is important to become aware of stress levels in your daily life since it can have an effect on your physical health and even lead to health issues.
Cortisol is a stress response hormone that is released when your body detects stress. In some circumstances, cortisol can be released in excess or levels can remain high when they shouldn’t be. This can cause health issues and interfere with the body’s proper function. This article will discuss how you can naturally lower stress and keep your cortisol levels where they should be.
What is Cortisol and How Does It Work?
Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands, two glands that sit atop the kidneys and are signaled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. This stress hormone helps you deal with stressful situations by helping the body adapt to “fight-or-flight” situations. Think of it this way: If you saw a lion running at you, you would probably want to run. When your brain detects this danger, it isn’t going to let your body waste energy on other processes other than getting you out of that situation. Your digestion may slow while your heart rate and breathing speed up.
Usually, once the stressors have passed, the cortisol levels go back down and your bodily functions (like blood sugar levels and blood pressure) go back to normal. When stress is poorly managed, however, cortisol levels can remain high when they shouldn’t be. Irregularities in cortisol levels can cause a variety of symptoms and conditions and interfere with your general well-being.
There are receptors in virtually every organ system of the body that respond to cortisol. For this reason, if cortisol levels are too high or too low, it can lead to a variety of different issues throughout the body. Someone who has low cortisol levels may be diagnosed with Addison’s disease. This condition causes feelings of fatigue, weakness and low blood pressure. If your cortisol levels are too high then your doctor may tell you that you have a condition called Cushing disease. Cushing disease can cause rapid weight gain, high blood pressure and bone loss. It can also lead to complications such as immune disorders and heart disease.
Negative Impacts of High Cortisol Levels
Even though cortisol plays an essential role in the body, you do not want cortisol levels to get too high. Chronic and poorly managed stress can cause the body to remain in a fight-or-flight mode even when there are no real threats present which has a negative impact on overall health.
High cortisol levels are associated with a variety of health issues including:
- Heart disease. High levels of cortisol can lead to increased cholesterol, high triglycerides and elevated blood pressure which can lead to heart disease over time. Cortisol naturally increases the heart rate and if the heart rate remains higher than it should be, it can cause damage to the heart muscle.
- High blood pressure. When cortisol is released it causes the arteries to narrow, increasing the blood pressure. The main reason for this is to help push blood more quickly throughout the body to oxygenate the muscles and prepare your body to fight off whatever threat is present.
- Weight gain. Cortisol stimulates your metabolism to give your body energy. This causes the appetite to increase and can cause cravings for sweet and salty foods. When you have elevated cortisol levels, it can cause weight gain over time since you’ll be hungry often.
- Mental health issues. When the brain is exposed to excessive cortisol levels it can lead to psychological symptoms like irritability and depression.
- Weakened immune system. When cortisol is released it causes a reduction in white blood cells which lowers your body’s immune function.
- Reduced hours of sleep. High cortisol levels cause a lack of sleep, also known as sleep deprivation, which can ultimately affect your overall health since sleep is so essential to health and well-being.
- Lack of concentration. High levels of cortisol can even influence your brain function and interfere with your ability to stay focused.
- Muscle weakness. Muscle weakness can often be attributed to high levels of cortisol.
What is Chronic Stress?
Stress is a normal part of life that we all deal with daily. A stressful situation may cause you to feel high levels of stress temporarily but when stress is poorly managed it can cause chronic stress that lasts even after the stressful circumstance is over.
Chronic stress is ongoing stress that is prolonged, leading to negative effects on mental and physical health and it can even lead to chronic illness and cancer. Chronic stress and high cortisol levels are usually connected since stress causes a release of the stress response hormone, cortisol, via the adrenal gland.
Symptoms of chronic stress might include:
- Feeling overwhelmed
Chronic stress can negatively impact your health and wellness in a variety of ways. It can lead to changes in weight, substance abuse, poor immune function, mental health conditions and heart disease.
It is very important to talk with your doctor about your stress levels so they can evaluate whether stress is negatively impacting your health and provide guidance on ways you can manage your stress.
Top 10 Natural Ways to Decrease Cortisol Levels
There’s no denying the fact that increased cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your health but the good news is that there are steps you can take to naturally lower your cortisol levels by reducing stress. Abnormal hormone levels are sometimes related to an underlying medical condition, such as an endocrine disorder.
In this case, you will likely need medical guidance in order to get your cortisol levels back to normal. However, it is always beneficial to make healthy lifestyle changes in an effort to naturally lower your cortisol levels on your own.
Keep reading for steps to help you achieve a healthy cortisol level.
Good sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is the practice of going to bed at a reasonable time each night and taking steps to ensure that you get a restful night of sleep. If you’re not getting restorative sleep then it could be causing a spike in your cortisol levels. Start doing a bedtime routine each night and make sure that you’ve created a good sleep environment that is free from any bright lights and or noisy distractions.
Practice breathing exercises
Deep breathing exercise can help you remain calm in the face of stress. You can practice breathing exercises throughout the day during stressful situations or just during downtime. There are many different types of breathing exercises to try. One example is taking a long slow breath in through the nose and out through the mouth and repeating this process a few times.
Working out regularly can help to lower your cortisol levels since it helps to stimulate the release of endorphins. Exercise can also help with weight loss and provide you with a release for pent-up energy, stress and thoughts allowing you to return from your workout feeling relaxed and at ease. It is recommended that adults exercise about 150 minutes per week with two days of strength training. Note that intense exercise could increase your cortisol levels momentarily, but they will decrease within a few hours.
Maintain a healthy diet
Many people are surprised to find out that their diet can actually influence cortisol levels. When you eat foods that are high in sugar it can cause spikes and drops in blood glucose levels which then can cause an increase in cortisol levels. Focus on eating a balanced diet that consists of a protein, fat and carbohydrate. Eat whole foods and shy away from highly processed foods that are high in sugar and sodium. Talk with your doctor about what type of diet approach is best for you as they can help further guide you.
Being dehydrated can actually cause your cortisol levels to increase. Keep a large water bottle nearby and try to drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep your body hydrated. Remember, if you exercise or drink caffeine, these activities can cause your body’s water needs to increase so you should compensate for these by drinking additional water.
Use probiotics and prebiotics
It turns out that probiotics are good for more than just gut health. They have also been found to help with stress relief by lowering cortisol levels. There are many different types of probiotic supplements available so it may take some time for you to find the best option. You can also increase your probiotic intake through diet by eating fermented foods and beverages like kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Implement stress management
Some stress management techniques that may help to lower your cortisol levels include practicing meditation, taking time to yourself, writing in a journal and spending time with people who bring you joy. Sometimes managing stress means setting boundaries with personal and professional relationships. Pay attention to where you are investing your energy and don’t be afraid to say no to certain tasks or obligations if you feel like they’re no longer serving you.
Spending time outdoors
Studies have found that time spent outside is linked to lowered stress levels. Try to incorporate time outside into your daily routine such as going for a short walk or sitting in a garden when you have a break. Spend longer stretches of time outside when you get the opportunity to help your body reset and get grounded again.
Use natural supplements
Some natural supplements such as ashwagandha, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, vitamin C and probiotics may help to lower cortisol levels. Talk with your doctor before taking any supplements to find out which ones are recommended for you.
Start a hobby
It is important to spend your time doing things you enjoy. Many people find themselves so wrapped up in work and other life responsibilities that they forget how to carve out time to simply enjoy life. Finding a hobby you like to do and prioritizing time for it can be a great way to reduce stress levels and find happiness in life. Some hobbies you could try include: reading books, knitting, painting, yoga, dancing, playing an instrument and cooking.
Living in a prolonged period of high cortisol is not only unenjoyable but it can have long-term consequences. If you feel like you’re constantly in fight-or-flight mode, it may be time to slow down and figure out what you need to do to manage your stress. Making a decision to live a healthy life is essential for long-term health and it requires commitment but the work is always worth it.
Having trusted healthcare providers on your side can help to make the shift into healthy living a little bit smoother. Schedule a visit with the experts at UCF Health to start your wellness journey today.