February 26, 2024 8 min read

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    Just relax! Easier said than done, right? The stress of everyday life, including personal life, career, and health management, gets even to the best of us. There's simply no way to shield ourselves from every stress-inducing life situation. 

    A "healthy" dose of stress can actually be motivating and keep us on our toes when we need it the most. However, once stress starts interfering with our well-being and manifesting through physical and mental issues, that's a sign to look into cortisol levels.

    The infamous stress hormone regulates the body's response to stress and plays numerous other important roles in our general health. It’s crucial to blood sugar and inflammation management, blood pressure regulation, and all of our metabolic functions. That being said, producing too little or too much cortisol can lead to a plethora of health issues that can seriously impact our quality of life. 

    In today's detailed guide, we'll take a deep dive into the mechanisms of cortisol, explain its multilayered roles, and finally, discuss the natural ways of optimizing your cortisol production.

    Defining Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

    Cortisol - The Stress Hormone

    Cortisol: Friend or foe? Many people perceive cortisol strictly as a problem-maker, while, in fact, too-low levels of cortisol aren't desirable, either. Adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison's disease, is mostly caused by an adrenal gland dysfunction or injury, leading to low production of cortisol. Too little cortisol can cause rapid weight loss, muscle pain, digestive issues, fatigue, weakness, and skin darkening.[1]

    Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal cortex and synthesized from cholesterol.[2] It is a glucocorticoid hormone created and released by suprarenal glands, also known as adrenal glands, regulating numerous bodily functions. Much like other hormones in the body, cortisol is a chemical messenger, sending signals that control processes in the muscles, skin, and organ systems throughout the body.[3]

    Since it is a glucocorticoid hormone, and most bodily tissues possess glucocorticoid receptors, almost no organ system in the body is immune to cortisol. Cortisol affects the cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, nervous, immune, integumentary, and musculoskeletal systems. The primary roles of cortisol include:

    • Stress response: Whether it be acute stress, chronic stress, or traumatic stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol in response. Cortisol is released following fight-or-flight hormones (including adrenaline) produced in stressful situations. The sole purpose of this mechanism is to alert and prepare us for danger by triggering the rapid release of sugar to provide energy. However, this kind of response can be quite frequent in the event of chronically high cortisol levels.[3]
    • Metabolism regulation: By mobilizing glucose, cortisol plays a key role in metabolic processes involving amino acids and free fatty acids. Excessive cortisol levels have been known to decrease lean muscle mass and trigger insulin resistance, a condition related to numerous health issues that could eventually lead to diabetes.[4]
    • Immune function and inflammation management: As an important glucocorticoid, cortisol has a significant role in inflammation management and the production of antibodies.[4]
    • Blood sugar and pressure regulation: When balanced, cortisol is responsible for increasing blood sugar, while insulin plays the opposite role. An imbalance between these two sugar-regulating hormones can lead to numerous health conditions, including diabetes. Moreover, high cortisol levels have been linked to increased blood pressure.[3]
    • Circadian rhythm: When your cortisol levels are optimal, they should decrease at bedtime and increase in the morning, promoting wakefulness. Unbalanced cortisol levels equal a disrupted sleep-wake cycle.[3]

    The Truth Behind High Cortisol

    We already know that adrenal glands produce cortisol. However, it is important to mention that the pituitary gland and a small area of the brain called the hypothalamus regulate the stress hormone. If these fail to fulfill their role, cortisol levels will be imbalanced.[3]

    High cortisol levels can result from health issues and prolonged use of certain medications, such as corticosteroids. However, numerous other lifestyle-related factors can contribute to elevated cortisol. Alcohol consumption, smoking, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, and stress can make your cortisol skyrocket even if the cortisol production mechanism itself isn’t compromised.[5]

    Signs of Elevated Cortisol Levels

    How can you recognize that your cortisol levels are heightened? Here are some tell-tale signs that could stem from a stress hormone imbalance.

    High Blood Pressure

    As we’ve already mentioned, cortisol can affect your blood pressure, and hypertension may be a sign of cortisol issues. However, this isn’t something you should take lightly, as many factors affect blood pressure, and hypertension deserves your doctor's urgent attention.[3]

    Chronic Stress

    Chronic Stress

    Chronic stress is a factor that is both the cause of and the problem itself. Constant exposure to stress can trigger a spike in your cortisol levels. Then again, high cortisol levels may result in restlessness, anxiety, and other mental health issues that may result in stress in many people.[3] This only speaks to the complexity of the stress issue and the importance of dealing with it promptly and adequately.

    Weight Gain

    High cortisol can also manifest through weight gain, especially in the face and abdomen. Chronic stress, whether as a cause or a consequence of elevated cortisol, can seriously impact eating habits and lead to weight gain. Moreover, a demonstrated connection exists between higher cortisol levels and increased appetite.[6]

    Weakened Immune System

    A study on the connection between immune function [7] and stress suggests that chronically high cortisol levels can result in the proliferation of other stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines that jeopardize our immunity.

    Mental Health Conditions

    There is a rather obvious connection between mental health and high cortisol. Issues such as anxiety and low mood can certainly impact cortisol production and vice versa. Faced with stress, our body produces an excess amount of cortisol, which impacts brain mechanisms and could lead to anxiety and depressive moods.[8]

    Sleep Deprivation

    Sleep Deprivation

    Since cortisol very much affects the sleep-wake cycle, an increase in its levels can certainly impact sleep hygiene, potentially leading to sleep disorders such as insomnia.[8]

    Dealing with Heightened Cortisol Naturally

    While the mentioned symptoms can be a wake-up call and point you in the right direction, a blood test remains the only accurate method of determining whether any of your hormones are out of balance. That being said, if cortisol appears to be the problem, there are effective natural methods you can turn to in order to achieve harmony.

    Reduce Stress Levels

    Stress management is a skill that may take years to achieve and perfect. Even the most stable, organized minds fall victim to stress, as problems cannot always be avoided. While you may not be able to remove yourself from certain situations, what you can do is change your perception of and reaction to them.

    How we react to and process stress is vital to our well-being. The key lies in finding what works for you, as no universal solution exists. Self-care is a priority, whether it be through therapy, moments of pampering, investing more time in hobbies, or staying active.

    Limit Caffeine Intake

    Yes, your caffeine addiction can lead to cortisol spikes and all those unpleasant issues we’ve mentioned.[9] Limiting your caffeine intake and switching to healthy coffee alternatives may be just what you need.

    Balanced Diet

    A balanced diet is perhaps the greatest key to optimal health, whether we’d like to admit it or not. A diet rich in healthy fats, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains is one of the surest paths to hormonal balance.[10]

    Deep Breathing Exercises

    It’s no secret that deep breathing can calm the body and the mind. It can also slow down the heart rate, especially when feeling anxious, and aid in cortisol management.[11]

    Moderate Intensity Exercise

    Moderate Exercise

    Is your high-intensity training causing your cortisol to go through the roof? Possibly. Exercise intensity greatly impacts our hormones, and what may be pleasant and beneficial for someone else may not be the solution for you.[12] Try switching to a lower-impact workout and track your reactions until you find the right activity.

    Omega-3 Fatty Acids

    It is a known fact that fatty acids have an incredibly beneficial effect on hormone regulation. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to reduce cortisol levels and help in creating balanced hormones across the board.[13

    Magnesium Complex

    Magnesium is a miracle worker in stress management, as it has a strong calming, sleep-inducing effect. Aside from its relaxing properties, magnesium has also been proven to decrease cortisol levels and alleviate its adverse effects.[14]

    Ashwagandha

    This potent Ayurvedic super plant is a known natural anxiolytic, often used in stress management. Ashwagandha has been found to reduce cortisol levels and improve sleep quality.[15]

    In Summary

    From weight management and heart pressure to sleep quality and mental health, there is hardly an aspect of our general health that isn’t influenced by the stress hormone cortisol. While cortisol plays a very important role in the body, it becomes the enemy the moment its levels rise above (or drop below) normal. 

    Therefore, optimizing your lifestyle, diet, and self-care may be the most important stops on your journey toward balanced cortisol. In addition to making better lifestyle choices, implementing a diverse diet, and prioritizing stress management, introducing all-natural supplements in your daily routine could be a game-changer. 

    Article References:

    1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease).” Www.hopkinsmedicine.org, 2023, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/underactive-adrenal-glands--addisons-disease.
    2. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2023 Aug 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
    3. Cleveland Clinic. “Cortisol: What It Is, Function, Symptoms & Levels.” Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 2021, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22187-cortisol.
    4. Christiansen, Jens Juel, et al. “Effects of Cortisol on Carbohydrate, Lipid, and Protein Metabolism: Studies of Acute Cortisol Withdrawal in Adrenocortical Failure.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol. 92, no. 9, 1 Sept. 2007, pp. 3553–3559, academic.oup.com/jcem/article/92/9/3553/2597859, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-0445.
    5. Fukuda, S., & Morimoto, K. (2001). Lifestyle, stress and cortisol response: Review II : Lifestyle. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 6(1), 15–21. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02897304
    6. Preiato, Daniel. “Cortisol and Weight Gain: Is There a Connection?” Healthline, 29 Sept. 2020, www.healthline.com/nutrition/cortisol-and-weight-gain.
    7. Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Current opinion in psychology, 5, 13–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007
    8. Singh, Manya . “Mental Health: 8 Health Risks of High Cortisol Levels to Watch out For.” NDTV.com, www.ndtv.com/health/mental-health-8-health-risks-of-high-cortisol-levels-to-watch-out-for-4001968. Accessed 26 Feb. 2024.
    9. Lovallo, W. R., Whitsett, T. L., al'Absi, M., Sung, B. H., Vincent, A. S., & Wilson, M. F. (2005). Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic medicine, 67(5), 734–739. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.psy.0000181270.20036.06
    10. Cortisol Level Test.” Healthline, 16 Nov. 2015, www.healthline.com/health/cortisol-urine#outlook. Accessed 26 Feb. 2024.
    11. Understanding Cortisol, the Stress Hormone.” Healthy Relationships, 10 Nov. 2023, www.canr.msu.edu/news/understanding_cortisol_the_stress_hormone#:~:text=Deep%20breathing%20can%20help%20lower. Accessed 26 Feb. 2024.
    12. Hill, E E, et al. “Exercise and Circulating Cortisol Levels: The Intensity Threshold Effect.” Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, vol. 31, no. 7, 2008, pp. 587–91, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18787373, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03345606.
    13. Madison, A. A., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Renna, M. E., Rosie Shrout, M., Malarkey, W. B., Lin, J., Epel, E. S., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2021). Omega-3 supplementation and stress reactivity of cellular aging biomarkers: an ancillary substudy of a randomized, controlled trial in midlife adults. Molecular psychiatry, 26(7), 3034–3042. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-021-01077-2
    14. Cuciureanu MD, Vink R. Magnesium and stress. In: Vink R, Nechifor M, editors. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press; 2011. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/
    15. Salve, J., Pate, S., Debnath, K., & Langade, D. (2019). Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus, 11(12), e6466. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.6466 



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