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Beyond the ‘Stress Hormone’: How Cortisol Impacts Your Health and Wellbeing

Cortisol is most commonly known as the ‘stress hormone’. However, it plays a much more significant role in the body. In this article, we explore how Cortisol impacts the body and how you can manage your Cortisol levels.

What Cortisol Does In Our Bodies

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It plays a vital role in several body functions, such as:

  • Impacting metabolism
  • Suppressing inflammation
  • Regulating blood sugar
  • Controlling the circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle)
  • Regulating the body’s response to stress

It is important to note that Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate during the day, as it is a key hormone to help us wake up in the morning. That means we typically experience higher levels early in the day, slowly decreasing as the day progresses.

What Cortisol is most known for is its role in the body’s stress response. When we are confronted with a stressful situation - be it traffic, a dreaded email or, in prehistoric times, a sabre-toothed tiger. In these situations, Cortisol helps to increase blood sugar levels, suppress the immune system, and increase the heart rate. Cortisol is essentially helping us to get into a flight or fight mode to respond appropriately to stress.

The Impacts Of Abnormal Cortisol Levels

Elevated Cortisol levels can be desirable for short periods, such as when we wake up or need to respond to a stressful situation. If we, however, experience consistently high cortisol levels, it can negatively impact various aspects of our health and wellbeing. For example, elevated Cortisol levels can harm the cardiovascular system as well as contribute to difficulties with weight management.

While the effects of too much Cortisol are more prominent in the public’s eye, it is also possible to have undesirably low Cortisol levels. Insufficient Cortisol levels may cause several symptoms, such as for example weakness, fatigue, weight loss or dizziness. 

How To Manage High Cortisol Levels

Once you are aware that your Cortisol levels are in an unhealthy state, a health professional can provide you with personal guidance on how to manage them. However, Cortisol levels can be positively affected by:

  • Nutritious food intake - An unhealthy diet filled with added sugars and ultra-processed foods can raise cortisol levels. A nutritious diet may help keep your Cortisol levels within healthy ranges.
  • Stress management techniques - Studies suggest that practising deep-breathing exercises for at least five minutes, three to five times a day could help to lower cortisol levels, ease anxiety, and even improve memory.
  • Reduced caffeine consumption - Caffeine has been associated with increased Cortisol levels by stimulating the central nervous system or peripheral metabolic mechanisms
  • Adequate sleep and exercise routines - Sleeping 8 hours per night and exercising 30 minutes per day may help to keep Cortisol levels within normal ranges.
  • Spending more time in nature - Simply being in nature among trees, breathing fresh air, and enjoying the morning sun may have a calming effect on your mind.
  • Laughing - Laughing releases feel-good chemicals and lowers Cortisol levels. Laughing can also improve your mood, lower blood pressure, and strengthen your immune system.

The Bottom Line

Cortisol is much more than the ‘stress hormone’. It plays a vital role in how our body functions, and short periods of higher cortisol levels tend to be desirable. Cortisol levels that are either too high or too low over an extended period, however, can cause negative effects on our health and wellbeing. 

Interested in knowing your stress levels?

Understanding Cortisol, stress and its effects on the body enables you to take action and improve your overall health now and into the future. The WellBeing Test analyses cortisol and other 24 biomarkers to provide actionable insights into the core health areas of energy, sleep, stress, inflammation, fitness and body fat composition.

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