The Truth About Cortisol
Let’s face it: cortisol gets a bad rap these days.
“I have high cortisol.”
“I have low cortisol.”
“My cortisol is out-of-whack.”
You’ve no doubt heard this all before or said it yourself.
The human body is unable to differentiate between legitimate, perceived, positive or negative stress. That means worrying and excitement casts the same stress hormone response as an actual stressor.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is popularly known as “the stress hormone” and is released by the adrenal glands which are located on top of the kidneys. Its primary role is to increase blood sugar for fuel. Other benefits include macronutrient absorption, blood pressure regulation, decreased inflammation, sleep, mood, and motivation.
Cortisol levels gradually decline throughout the day, being highest in the morning and lowest at night. An important point is if you think primitively, just like the sun, cortisol rises in the morning as we prepare for the busiest part of our day. By the end of the day, we can settle down, go to sleep, just like the sun setting and that is when cortisol should be at its lowest. Over time we have changed cortisol from an acute hormone to a chronic hormone.
How to maintain healthy Cortisol levels:
Lifestyle and everyday behaviors such as sleep schedules, balanced diet, exercise, perceived stress, and stress management heavily influence this rhythm.
What is meant by “perceived stress” is that our brains do not know the difference between perceived reality or what we can imagine and what is actually true. It is important to always focus on what you want. Many people struggle with that because people are inherently negatively wired.
Unhealthy cortisol levels:
Elevated cortisol at night interferes with the anabolic output of hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone, and melatonin. When we don’t sleep as well, we don’t recover as easily and cannot fully repair tissues and our cells. Over time cell reproduction slows down and we have more toxins in our system.
With cortisol being so important for maintenance of the body’s basic regulatory systems, chronic stress can lead to unhealthy levels of cortisol causing a number of serious health risks:
- Breakdown of muscle tissue
- Consistent fatigue
- Weight gain due to increased appetite
- High glucose levels
- Increased visceral fat – fat surrounding organs
- Hormone imbalances
Common lifestyle factors that attribute to unhealthy levels of cortisol include:
- Irregular sleep schedule
- Rotating shift work
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Overstimulation from electronic devices
- Diet consisting of high amounts of sugar and processed foods
- Stressful activity
- Sleeping with the TV on
- Blue light
The fast-paced, high-demand, technology-driven expectations of the 21st century make managing stress a difficult task. Although challenging, it is crucial in achieving optimal health. Understanding the role of cortisol and how our bodies respond to stress and is a great first step in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle.