For our ancestors, dealing with stress was a survival skill. You see, the earliest humans saw stress as a signal them that there might be a predator or some dangerous aggressor nearby. Today, though, people get stressed about far more than life or death situations…things like traffic, struggles at work, or even family problems — all of these daily challenges can trigger your stress responses. And frankly, that’s TOO much stress. Thus, we need to learn how to lower cortisol levels.
But first, let’s take a closer look.
So what happens when you get stressed?
When you’re stressed, one of the most prominent changes to your body is a spike in your cortisol levels. Cortisol is also called “the stress hormone.” And over time, having too much cortisol can be a problem.
This makes it important to find ways to keep your cortisol levels stable. The good news is that you may not need to rely on expensive medications to do so, though if you have a problem with ongoing stress, it’s important to speak with a medical professional
What Exactly Is “The Stress Hormone?”
Cortisol – the stress hormone – comes from the adrenal glands. It’s released by a combination of your adrenal gland, hypothalamus, and pituitary glands. Together, these three glands make up your HPA axis (aka your hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis). Issues with any one of these three glands can affect the release of hormones – including cortisol.2
Most cells in your body have cortisol receptors that allow the hormone to play a role in several different functions. These include things like –
- Controlling blood sugar levels
- Regulating metabolism
- Reducing inflammation
- Controlling blood pressure3
Remember, the stress response was designed to handle life-or-death situations. Of course, not everything that stresses you out today falls under that category. As a result, your body can overreact to something you perceive as negative, like an upcoming work deadline.
Sometimes though, you can experience “good stress” – also known as eustress. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that stress is good for you. Instead, it’s a stress response brought on by something you may perceive as positive.
In fact, experts often define eustress as a “seize-the-day” spirit… often linked with a tangible goal. High cortisol levels can also be associated with this state.4 But generally, your cortisol levels can return to normal after the situation passes. However, if things don’t return to normal – you might end up with an issue on your hands.
When Cortisol Levels Go Wrong…
Turns out, there are some serious conditions that can stem from having high cortisol levels for prolonged periods of time. Often times symptoms can signal an issue with your pituitary glands. In fact, if you notice any of the following signs…
- Rapid weight gain in your face, chest, and abdomen
- A flushed face
- High blood pressure
- Bruises and purple stretch marks on your skin
- Muscle weakness
- Mood swings, anxiety, depression, or irritability
- Increased frequency of urination5
…you should talk to your doctor as soon as you can.
Now, it’s also possible to have cortisol levels that are too low, but that’s pretty rare. This generally stems damaged or destroyed adrenal glands.6 If this becomes an issue, it can trigger chronic stress.
The Chronic Stress Response and You
Cortisol isn’t the only component of chronic stress. However, because so many parts of your body respond to it, high cortisol production has the potential to do damage to your body over time. The body takes an all-or-nothing approach to stress, but it can backfire.
Here are just a few ways that it can make a negative impact –
Glucose Management –
Glucose fuels many of your body’s important functions. When you’re stressed, cortisol gives your liver a signal to provide extra glucose – the response was used to be a necessary burst of energy so you had the energy to flee or fight an attacker.
But, in the long-term, high cortisol levels can lead to increased glucose levels in your bloodstream. Of course, this can lead to some serious health issues.7
Weight Gain –
Recently, studies have shown a direct correlation between high cortisol levels and increased calorie intake in women. When your blood glucose levels are high and your insulin levels are suppressed, it can lead to glucose-starved cells. So, these cells can send hunger signals to the brain in an attempt to up your energy. What happens next? You might overeat – and your unused glucose gets stored in your body as fat. Cortisol can also contribute to weight gain by increasing visceral fat storage.8,9
Gastrointestinal Issues –
Sometimes when you’re stressed, your body might respond by stopping or slowing down certain functions. This might include –
- Nutrient absorption
Now, the results of the slowing or stopping of these processes can lead to indigestion, ulcers, and other concerns. In fact, some patients with irritable bowel syndrome have reported feeling better after figuring out how to manage their stress.10
Of course, this begs the question, “How do you learn to manage your stress?”
How to Lower Cortisol Levels
Well, when it comes to handling high cortisol levels, it’s important to take a multi-pronged approach. Just as cortisol affects many different parts of the body, there are many different ways to manage it.
One of the best things you can do for yourself if you’re battling regular stress is to get good sleep. Sleeping during the day, sleep deprivation, and rotating sleep shifts are all linked to increased cortisol.11,12 And if you have to work unconventional hours be sure to avoid caffeine and maybe even try earplugs and eye covers in order to curb certain distractions before trying to sleep.13,14
You’ll also want to add regular exercise to your weekly regimen. The nice thing here is that intensity or athletic ability doesn’t really play a role. If you’re not used to exercising, you might discover an initial rise in cortisol – so start slow, by walking at a comfortable pace. And those exercise-related cortisol levels should decrease at night. Of course, this is key as the bulk of your cortisol hormone gets released and regulated while you sleep.15,16
In addition, calming activities like meditation and massage are actually proven to help reduce cortisol. In fact, one study showed that after several weeks of massage therapy, patients had an average cortisol drop of nearly one third.17
So, if you’re stressed, you may want to at least learn to practice deep breathing. A recent study showed that women who had a regimen of deep breathing experienced a 50% drop in their cortisol levels.18 Even practices as simple as listening to music have shown notable positive effects.19
Sure, your daily life may always be stressful, but there are always ways to counteract that stress.
Finally, you may read about “stress-relieving foods.” And there’s a shred of truth here, but what you don’t eat can be just as important.
For instance, consuming sugar can have the opposite effect of exercise when it comes to cortisol levels. In fact, eating sugar can actually decrease your cortisol levels at first. That’s why it’s called “comfort food.”
But beware, eating too much sugar can lead to increased cortisol levels over time.20 If you’re trying to lower your cortisol levels, try sticking to lower sugar sweets such as dark chocolate and fruit. And stay hydrated with herbal or green tea and water. 21
Remember, the goal isn’t to lose your “stress hormone” completely. While you may not encounter life-and-death situations on a daily basis, cortisol is still meant to protect you. So, try to find a way to manage those daily stressors.