Health / Expert Advice

Why Everyone Should Know About The Stress Hormone, Cortisol

It’s true, mental health can impact your physical health, too.

Whether we’re stuck in rush hour traffic, fighting with a friend, or dealing with pressures at the office, everyone is either exposed to or under a great deal of stress. While fitting in an intense Aaptiv cardio class to help release some tension is a great idea, addressing and managing underlying hormones—like cortisol—can be the proper way to assuage physical and mental stressors.

Unfortunately, cortisol is not widely known or talked about when it comes to our health (both body and mind). Ever wonder why individuals tend to put on weight when taking on a new job, or have sleepless nights when having relationship issues? This is because our bodies are pushing out a hormone that can physically put our bodies into a state of emergency.

Read on, as we deep dive into the mysteries of cortisol and why everyone should be paying attention to their personal hormone levels.

What is cortisol?

According to the Hormone Health Network, from the Endocrine Society, cortisol is referred to as the stress hormone. The greater the amount of stress that our bodies undergo, the higher the level of cortisol they produce. The two go hand in hand.

Produced from the adrenal glands, cortisol acts as a tool for many of its receptor cells throughout the body. This can be anything from controlling our blood sugar, increasing or decreasing our metabolism, fighting inflammation, and even creating new memories.

A regular level of cortisol production is healthy and necessary for the body. However, producing more than the necessary levels can put our bodies into a rough state.

What causes cortisol levels to spike?

“Stress and lack of sleep can cause cortisol levels to rise in the body,” says Dr. Rocio Salas-Whalen, endocrinologist and founder of New York Endocrinology. “By nature, our body releases cortisol in moments of physical and physiological stress. Lack of sleep puts our body in a state of stress because our body is not resting.”

In addition to sleep deprivation, stressful situations can also cause cortisol levels to rise. It’s true that stress levels are unpredictable and can be caused by a numerous amount of external forces. However, the prolonged exposure to stress-inducing situations can leave the body at high levels for longer than normal.

How can you tell if cortisol levels are affecting you?

Dr. Salas-Whalen believes that for there are no specific signs that show high cortisol levels due to stress. But she points out that this refers to chronic, mild elevated levels of cortisol.

“This is not regarding Cushing disease, which is a pathologic elevation of cortisol. If you know you sleep less than seven hours a day [and] have chronic stress at work or in life, obesity could be the best sign of chronic elevated levels of cortisol,” explains Dr. Salas-Whalen. This is due to the elevated blood sugar and irregular metabolism caused by high cortisol levels.

“Chronic elevated cortisol can have detrimental health consequences—obesity being the most important factor to consider,” she says. “Additionally, chronic elevations of cortisol can raise blood pressure.”

Cortisol’s Relationship With Adrenaline and Adrenal Fatigue

Michael E. Platt, MD, author of Adrenaline Dominance, states that, “The problem with stress is that it’s most often related to excess adrenaline (also a survival hormone). Part of the survival response is that adrenaline cuts off blood supply to certain areas of the body that we do not need for survival. This is why some people experience cold hands and/or feet. It is also responsible for causing IBS, since we don’t need the intestines for survival. Adrenaline also cuts off blood supply to the salivary glands, which explains why a lot of people with anxiety complain of a dry mouth.”

So, where does cortisol come into play when it comes to adrenaline?

“Adrenaline prevents hormones from getting into the saliva, resulting in low cortisol levels when tested. This results in the misdiagnosis of adrenal fatigue. The treatment of adrenal fatigue aims to raise cortisol levels. This is unnecessary because they are actually already elevated in response to the stress created by adrenaline,” notes Dr. Platt. He recommends getting a blood test instead to learn the differences between cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue.

How can you lower cortisol levels?

“I recommend [that] my patients get a proper seven to eight hours of sleep. That will definitely decrease cortisol levels,” says Dr. Salas-Whalen. “Regular exercise, meditation, and relaxation techniques can also help to lower cortisol levels,” she adds.

Additionally, the nourishment that we put into our bodies can have a great impact on managing our cortisol levels. “Nourishing your body with foods such as black or green tea, bananas, and dark chocolate have been shown to promote healthy cortisol levels,” says Jocelyn Nadua, a registered practical nurse and care coordinator at C-Care Health Services. “It’s important to limit your refined sugar intake, as glucose tends to elevate cortisol levels.”

Cortisol can sound scary, but you just need to manage and address it in the right way. Cortisol, when in check, can actually be an essential building block to maintaining the body’s proper functions and regulating hormone levels.

It is always important that you’re aware of any body imbalances. If you believe cortisol may be impacting you, try locating a local endocrinologist to help you manage existing levels.

To prevent the onset of heightened cortisol levels, make sure to incorporate one of Aaptiv’s many meditation classes to work through any stressors.

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