More often than not, we generally associate cortisol with stress. While it is certainly known as the stress hormone for a very good reason, it’s far more than just the hormone that is released to regulate our body’s response to stress. In fact, it has a wide range of effects on our bodies that is essential to balance our hormones and improve our holistic well-being.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is both produced and released by our adrenal glands. Throughout our body, many of our cells contain cortisol receptors, allowing for a widespread effect of this hormone. Cortisol affects almost every single organ and tissue within the human body, touching the nervous, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, musculoskeletal, and integumentary systems.
This hormone undoubtedly helps to mediate our body’s response to stress. However, it also helps regulate our blood pressure and blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, control how our body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to help with our metabolism, manage our sleep-wake cycle, and assist with memory formulation. In women, this hormone can also support a developing fetus during pregnancy.
How does cortisol affect us?
We know that stress can affect our bodies and our health – physically, mentally, and emotionally. When we face chronic stress, it can cause pain, including chest pain, exhaustion, headaches, high blood pressure, the tension in the muscles, digestive problems, and a weakened immune system. It also can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, and sadness and trigger panic attacks.
When presented with a situation in life that may cause a stress response in our body, our internal systems get to work. First, our bodies will release adrenaline–our “fight or flight” hormone–which will cause our heart rate, blood pressure, and energy to increase and put us on high alert. After, cortisol is released and will increase glucose in our bloodstream from our liver and boost our brain’s use of these sugars to provide a boost of energy.
That’s just our stress response, though. It has a hand in changing the responses of our immune, digestive, and reproductive systems. Cortisol can help improve our immunity to some degree by reducing inflammation, counterbalancing our body’s reaction to insulin to create balance by raising blood sugar by releasing glucose as insulin continues to lower blood sugar, as well as managing our sleep-wake cycle. When we sleep, our cortisol levels lower, increasing right before we wake up. All our cortisol functions can funnel up to our brain to help manage our fear, mood, and motivation.
How can we tell if we have low cortisol levels?
However, lower cortisol levels are most commonly referred to as adrenal insufficiency. A cause of primary adrenal insufficiency includes Addison’s disease, which is an autoimmune reaction where our immune system will attack the healthy cells within our adrenal glands. Secondary adrenal insufficiency can be caused by hypopituitarism–which is an underactive pituitary gland–or a tumor in the pituitary gland, which can limit the production of adrenocorticotropic hormone. Stopping corticosteroid medications can also lower your cortisol levels, typically after a long period of use.
When an individual has lower-than-normal cortisol levels, they tend to exhibit symptoms of fatigue, hypotension, poor appetite, and unintentional weight loss.
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How can we tell if we have heightened cortisol levels?
Extended periods of high levels of cortisol in our body can be attributed to a rare condition called Cushing’s syndrome. Higher levels of cortisol and this syndrome can be caused by several things, including taking large amounts of corticosteroid medications, tumors in the pituitary gland that produces an adrenocorticotropic hormone, and adrenal gland tumors or hyperplasia (excessive growth of adrenal tissue).
Symptoms of high cortisol levels include muscle weakness in the upper arms and thighs, weight gain, hypertension, wide purple stretch marks on the abdomen, osteoporosis, high blood sugar, and fatty deposits between the shoulder blades.
How can we regulate our cortisol levels?
In order to regulate cortisol levels in our body, our hypothalamus–which is a small area in our brain–and pituitary gland–a gland below our brain–play a massive role by regulating our body’s production of cortisol within our adrenal glands. If our cortisol levels fall, our hypothalamus will release a corticotropin-releasing hormone that will instruct our pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone. It’s this hormone that will direct our adrenal glands to produce, then release cortisol. Our hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands must all function properly to ensure our cortisol levels are regulated.
When it comes to reducing cortisol naturally to regulate the levels in our body in the context of stress, a few adjustments can be made to our routines to help maintain and regulate our cortisol. There has been research done about specific herbs and supplements, including ashwagandha, Rhodiola, lemon balm, and chamomile, and their ability to help lower your anxiety, cortisol levels, and stress. Outside of supplements and herbs, one of the biggest keys to reducing feelings of stress and lowering levels of cortisol is through lifestyle changes, including exercising, getting a good night’s sleep, spending time in nature, and adopting mind-body practices, including yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises.