Dealing with Stress by Reducing Cortisol Levels

If you can’t recall the last time you felt really happy and relaxed, you are excessively tired, and the slightest challenge sends you into a state of rage, you could be suffering from a common ailment – high cortisol levels.

What is Cortisol?

Considered the “stress hormone”, cortisol is one of the primary hormones the body releases when a person is under any type of stress. Released by the adrenal glands, cortisol activates the fight or flight response. This hormone makes you more responsive, alert, and motivated, allowing you to better handle a challenging situation. For example, say you’re walking down the street and you see scaffolding from a building falling and its landing spot is right on top of your head, your cortisol levels will become elevated, allowing you to quickly respond to the situation and move to safety.

How the Body Produces Cortisol

When you are faced with a stressful event, the hypothalamus releases the corticotropin-releasing hormone (also known as CRH). Once this hormone is released, the pituitary gland is stimulated and sends out the adrenocorticotropic hormone (more commonly referred to as ACTH), which enters the adrenal glands via the bloodstream. ACTH causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which activates the fight or flight response.

The Effects of Heightened Cortisol Levels

While cortisol is supposed to be helpful and is certainly a necessity in certain situations, if your body produces too much of it, it can be severely detrimental.

Several studies have determined that when the body produces heightened levels of cortisol, it can lead to chronic stress. High-stress levels can result in various health conditions, including:

  • Chronic anxiety
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Weakened immune system response
  • Depression
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Imbalances of other vital hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone
  • Imbalanced thyroid
  • Weight gain

How to Spot High Cortisol Levels

There aren’t any specific laboratory tests that can spot high cortisol levels. However, there are several signs that indicate your levels of the stress hormone are too high. Some of the most common side effects of high cortisol production include:

  • Difficulty sleeping. If you are having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep, it could be because your cortisol levels are too high. The production of this hormone is supposed to decrease at night; however, if you have an over-abundance of cortisol, it can impact your sleep.
  • Increased fatigue. Of course, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you are going to feel excessively tired. However, even if you are able to get good rest, high cortisol levels can lead to chronic fatigue. The reason? – Heightened cortisol levels impact the function of the adrenal glands, which can impact your energy levels.
  • Increased susceptibility to illnesses. Since cortisol can impact the function of the immune system, if you are producing too much of the hormone, you can become more susceptible to illnesses, such as the flu and the common cold.
  • It’s normal to feel irritable every now and again, but if your body is putting out too much cortisol, you could experience bad moods on a regular basis. For instance, even the slightest challenge – spilling a beverage or misplacing your keys – could cause you to snap.
  • Weight gain. Digestion naturally slows down as a result of cortisol production, which helps the body hold onto energy. If you are producing too much of the stress hormone, your digestion can become significantly reduced, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Anxiety or depression. Research has shown that chronic stress can cause anxiety and depression. That’s because cortisol reduces the function of neurotransmitters – particularly serotonin and dopamine – which can result in anxiety or depression.

If you are experiencing any combination of these symptoms, there is a very good chance that you are suffering from chronic stress as a result of high cortisol production.

Ways to Reduce Cortisol Levels

If you believe that you are suffering from high cortisol levels, you’ll be relieved to know that there are some simple ways that you can lower your levels and reduce the negative consequences that are associated with this hormone. Here’s a look at some highly effective ways to reduce the production of cortisol.

  • Lower your stress levels. It might seem obvious, and that’s because it’s true: reducing your stress levels will certainly lower your cortisol levels. If you find that you are constantly exposed to stressful situations, look for ways that you can remove yourself from them. For instance, if a person in your life causes stress, consider distancing yourself, or if you work too much, try to cut back on your hours.
  • Meditation. Studies have found that meditation can help the brain and body shut off the response to stress, which in effect promotes relaxation. Meditating for just 10 minutes a day can drastically lower cortisol production.
  • Try yoga. Just like meditation can help reduce cortisol levels, so can yoga. In fact, the two are strongly linked. Yoga involves a combination of breathing exercises and positions that help the body and mind relax, thereby lowering the production of cortisol.
  • Experience nature. There have been several studies that have examined the effects of nature on the human body. These studies have revealed that spending more time in natural settings can significantly lower cortisol levels, and in turn, stress. There are so many ways you can spend more time in nature: hike through the woods; swim in the ocean or a lake; go to the beach. Even something as simple as gardening can reduce cortisol production.
  • Improve sleep quality. When the body is sleeping, it repairs and restores itself and the production of cortisol ceases. Make efforts to improve the quality of sleep you are getting by establishing a bedtime ritual, sleeping in a dark, cool room, and limiting your exposure to electronics at least one hour before bed.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash