|Cortisol gets a bad rap. And considering how closely linked it is to stress, maybe this little hormone deserves the flack. Or not. Cortisol, it seems, is basically the hormone version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Under normal circumstances, it protects us from stress. However, too much of it and…well, that’s not such a good thing. But never fear! Cortisol doesn’t have to get all Mr. Hyde on us. Here are a few things to know.|
Cortisol (a.k.a.“the stress hormone”) is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal cortex in the kidneys. The pituitary gland in the brain signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol when we experience stress.
What does it do?
Cortisol regulates important bodily functions during times of stress. It stabilizes blood pressure, blood sugar, immune function and metabolic and inflammatory responses. At normal levels, cortisol protects us from the negative effects of stress—everything from weight gain and fatigue to diabetes and hypertension.
Cortisol is only good in the right amounts. Our adrenal glands secrete cortisol in direct response to stress; when the stress subsides, cortisol levels return to normal. However, these days many of us experience constant stress from things like demanding jobs, family responsibilities and even traffic-heavy daily commutes. Our stress response is almost always activated, so our cortisol levels remain high.
Too much cortisol actually causes many of the same issues it’s supposed to protect us from: high blood sugar and blood pressure, poor immune function, increased abdominal fat, disrupted sleep, anxiety, muscle aches and pains, gastrointestinal problems…the list goes on.
Nutrition, exercise and sleep are the keys to controlling cortisol.
Since too much cortisol raises blood sugar, it’s important to avoid foods that are processed or high in sugar. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon or flaxseed) counter cortisol’s inflammatory effects. Dietary supplements like fish oils, vitamin C and ashwagandha (an Indian herb) can help restore adrenal function—ask a trusted health professional for advice.
Exercising to lower cortisol is a bit tricky because exercise naturally raises cortisol. Cortisol levels peak about 40 minutes into exercise, to be exact. Consider limiting cardiovascular activity to less than 40 minutes a few times a week. Restorative exercise (like yoga or Pilates), however, regulates cortisol output.
Sleep is important for lowering cortisol. Aim for seven to eight uninterrupted hours each night. Artificial light tricks the body into releasing cortisol making it difficult to fall asleep. Turn off your electronic devices (including the TV) at least an hour before bedtime. t8n
Did You Know? Cortisol is one of three major stress hormones; the others are adrenaline and norepinephrine. All three are produced in the adrenal glands and are released during the body’s fight-or-flight stress response; however, adrenaline and norepinephrine kick in immediately, while cortisol takes a few minutes to respond.