What is cortisol?

Cortisol is the body's main stress hormone, and it plays a role in many physiological functions, including controlling glucose levels. The amount of cortisol in the blood is generally higher in the morning and slowly decreases throughout the day.

High cortisol symptoms include the diminished immune system, an increased appetite, weight gain & increased belly fat, fatigue, disrupted sleep, blood sugar problems, greater inflammation.

If you are stressed out all of the time, it might be throwing your cortisol levels off their normal pattern. Find out how to recognize the signals of high cortisol and how to reduce it. According to Mayo Clinic, the long-term activation of this stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow may disrupt almost all of your body's processes. This places you at increased risk of several health problems, such as:

- Stress

- Depression

- Digestive problems

- Headaches

- Heart disease

- Sleep issues

- Weight gain

- Performance and Memory impairment

See: Anti Anxiety Diet to Reduce Stress

Why is high cortisol a problem?

Stress triggers the release of cortisol. The body is based on effective communication between the next three parts of the body to release the correct amount of cortisol: the adrenal gland, the pituitary gland, and the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain. Between them, they stimulate the production of cortisol once the body requires it and block it if the amounts will need to fall back down. Both too much and too little cortisol may have a negative effect on the body.

That is why it's essential to learn healthy ways to deal with your daily life stressors.

There are many methods of lowering cortisol levels to help ensure that the body handles stress appropriately. Some of these methods may work better than others for different people.

Cortisol is one of the main hormones produced by the adrenal glands. It's called the stress hormone since it is released during times of physical and psychological stress. Cortisol plays a role in reducing inflammation. It also regulates the body's sleep-wake cycles, heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, and breathing rate to give you a natural energy boost to take on whatever stressor is coming your way. That's a great thing in the short term, but being stressed can result in high cortisol levels all of the time, which can have a significant influence on your health.

See: Yoga & meditation for natural stress relief

What is a cortisol test?

How do you get your cortisol levels tested? If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you can always ask your physician about a cortisol test to find out whether a cortisol imbalance may be behind your symptoms. At the home test, you collect saliva first thing in the morning, before lunch, before dinner and before bed.

The results show your cortisol levels during the day. A normal cortisol pattern begins high in the morning and gradually decreases throughout the day, reaching its lowest point at night. If your routine looks different, it may signify a cortisol imbalance.

See: Anxiety & stress in pregnancy natural remedies

Natural ways to reduce high cortisol levels

Here are some ideas on how to reduce your cortisol levels. 

1. Meditation.

Meditation activates the body's comfort response during the HPA axis, the central stress response system. This lowers cortisol and reduces your breathing rate, relaxes muscles, and reduces blood pressure. Additionally, it arouses regions of the brain that control stress. Individuals who completed an online mindfulness program for one hour per week for eight weeks reported a 31 percent drop in stress levels a year following the program.

2. Gentle exercise

The duration and intensity of your workouts can have a large influence on your cortisol levels. High-intensity exercise, around 80 percent of your maximal oxygen uptake, even if done for only 30 minutes significantly elevates cortisol levels. Consistent long-duration exercise may also increase your cortisol level.

When scientists analyzed the cortisol levels from the hair of endurance athletes, they found higher concentrations than in non-endurance athletes. Reduced-intensity workouts on the other hand, like yoga, can reduce cortisol amounts by deactivating the stress reaction, increasing parasympathetic activity, and diminishing norepinephrine.

3. Eat healthily.

It might seem counterintuitive, but a small serving of a healthy carbohydrate at dinner such as quinoa, brown rice, squash, or sweet potato can actually regulate glucose levels and help you have a better sleep. Cortisol and insulin have an inverse relationship, meaning when cortisol is high, insulin is reduced. To ensure good health in the day, healthy carbs at dinner can spike your insulin and reduce your cortisol. This helps you to unwind and prepare for bed and restful sleep.

4. Forest therapy

If your present lifestyle leaves you lacking in time spent outside, a dose of character might be just what you will need to help lower cortisol levels. When a group of people was sent to spend some time walking through a town or within a forest for 20 minutes, cortisol levels in the woods group were considerably lower. In another study, a group of people spent time walking through a forest one day and through a city another day. The forest environment encouraged lower cortisol, more cerebral nerve activity, lower blood pressure, and reduced pulse rate than the city atmosphere.

5. Sleep well

Sleeping in time with your body's biorhythms and getting enough quality sleep can help you decrease your cortisol levels naturally. Ideally, getting to bed by 10 p.m. can allow you to avoid a late-night cortisol spike that could make it tough to get to sleep and sleep soundly. This also benefits from natural melatonin production, which begins around sunset to get the help you wind down.

6. Avoid caffeine at night

People trying to reduce their cortisol levels should avoid consuming food and drinks containing caffeine in the evening. Caffeine can interfere with a good night's sleep, and sleeping well can keep cortisol levels low.

7. Relax before bedtime

A fantastic bedtime routine usually results in more and higher-quality sleep. People should get in the habit of turning off all displays and just relaxing before going to bed. It will usually also help keep phones, and some other possible distractions turned off. Limiting fluid intake before bedtime may also minimize the probability of disturbed sleep.

8. Love & support

Stable, loving relationships with spouses, friends, and family can be vital when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, and they can help someone get through stressful periods. 

9. Pet therapy

Some studies suggest that having a pet can lower cortisol levels. People who had a dog present throughout the procedure had significantly lower cortisol levels than those who didn't. Another found that contact with a dog was more beneficial for cortisol levels in relation to a supportive buddy during a stressful situation.

10. Take supplements

Both fish oil and an Indian herbal supplement known as ashwagandha has proven the capability to decrease cortisol levels, so taking these supplements along with a healthy diet could be beneficial.

See: Ashwagandha benefits for anxiety

Summary

Too much cortisol in the blood can be detrimental to your health, especially when cortisol levels remain high over a protracted period. Attempting to reduce stress levels is the best way to reduce cortisol. By making simple lifestyle changes with meditation, diet, exercise, and mother nature, one can live a healthier, more energetic life.  Individuals are then able to decrease the amount of stress they experience and maintain their cortisol levels normal.

See: Melatonin Rich Foods That Help You Sleep

References

1. Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037            

2. Detweiler, M. B., Self, J. A., Lane, S., Spencer, L., Lutgens, B., Kim, D. Y., ... Lehmann, L.P. (2015, July–August). Horticultural therapy: A pilot study on modulating cortisol levels and indices of substance craving, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and quality of life in veterans [Abstract]. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 21(4), 36–41  ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26030115

3. Hackney, A. C., & Viru, A. (2008, June 28). Twenty-four-hour cortisol response to multiple daily exercise sessions of moderate and high intensity [Abstract]. Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, 19(2), 178–182   onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1365-2281.1999.00157.x

4. Martin, F.-P. J., Rezzi, S., Peré-Trepat, E., Kamlage, B., Collino, S., Leibold, E., ... Kochhar, S. (2009, October 7). Metabolic effects of dark chocolate consumption on energy, gut microbiota, and stress-related metabolism in free-living subjects. Journal of Proteome Research, 8(12), 5568–5579  pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/pr900607v

5. Kim, S. H., Schneider, S. M., Bevans, M., Kravitz, L., Mermier, C., Qualls, C., & Burge, M. R. (2013, July 1). PTSD symptom reduction with mindfulness-based stretching and deep breathing exercise: A randomized controlled clinical trial of efficacy. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 98(7), 2984–2992 academic.oup.com/jcem/article/98/7/2984/2537196  Adrenal glands. (n.d.)

hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/endocrinology/adrenal_glands_85,p00399

6. Charney, D. S. (2004, February). Psychobiological mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability: Implications for successful adaptation to extreme stress [Abstract]. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(2), 195–216 ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14754765

7. Delarue, J., Matzinger, O., Binnert, C., Schneiter, P., Chioléro, R., & Tappy, L. (2003, June). Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men. Diabetes & Metabolism, 29(3), 289–295  ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12909818

8. Laurent, H. K., Hertz, R., Nelson, B., & Laurent, S. M. (2016, March). Mindfulness during romantic conflict moderates the impact of negative partner behaviors on cortisol responses [Abstract]. Hormones and Behavior, 79, 45–51 ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26795454

See: Can stress cause acid reflux

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