Cortisol Levels & Stress Could Be the Root Cause of Your Health Concerns
Sleep? HA. I’ll sleep when I’m dead! Which is what I often said in my teenager years. Now in my 20s, I have significant problems sleeping and have put too much stress on my body. Magnified by the pandemic funk we all find ourselves in, I’ve noticed that my unhealthy sleeping habits are weighing heavily on my energy levels and plummeting my mental health. Monologue aside, today we’re diving deeper on the topic of stress, cortisol levels, and how they affect our bodies.
- Cortisol is our body’s stress hormone
- High levels of cortisol can cause a lot of damage to your body
- Managing your stress will keep your body physically healthy
What is cortisol and what does it do?
If you’ve ever done some reading on health and exercise, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve come across the word cortisol before. The word is typically related to stress. Web M.D. describes it as “nature’s built-in alarm system” (1). As the body’s stress hormone, cortisol can impact your mood, fear, and motivation (1).
It’s important to note that cortisol is not some evil villain like how some health magazines may frame it to be. Cortisol originates from the adrenal glands, which are at the top of your kidneys (1). Your brain, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, monitors your cortisol levels in your blood and adjusts your hormone production (1). This signals to the adrenal glands to change how much of the hormone it releases.
Your cortisol receptors, which are in most bodily cells, receive the hormone and use it for many important functions (2).
Cortisol can (1)(2):
- Help control blood sugar levels
- Reduce inflammation
- Regulate blood pressure
- Control sleep/wake cycle
- Maintain salt/water balance
It’s also worth noting that the hormone is also responsible for our “fight of flight” response. In stressful situations, our bodies can use cortisol to shut down “non-essential” processes and instead boost our energy to deal with the stress (3).
Understanding your cortisol levels
Because your hormones have a huge impact on your health, it’s crucial to find a healthy balance. A healthy range is 10-20 mcg/dL (3). You can check your cortisol levels with a blood and urine test at your doctor’s office or you can do a saliva test (4). If your levels are too low, you may experience fatigue, weakness, and darkening regions of your skin (5). On the other hand, there are serious consequences from having prolonged high cortisol levels (3).
Symptoms of high cortisol levels may include (4)(5):
- Rapid weight gain, around the midsection, upper back, and face
- Increased thirst and urination
- Muscle weakness
- High blood pressure
- Thinning of skin
- Flushed face
- Bruising more easily
- Severe fatigue
- Mood swings or mental health changes
- Slower healing
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
Causes of high cortisol levels
Stress really packs a punch on our health, even though we tend to ignore it and chug more coffee instead.
Stress will trigger a bunch of signals, one of them to release more cortisol (4). Since your body is more-or-less in flight-or-fight mode, the hormone will shut down “non-essential” functions (4). The reason I put it in quotation marks is because these functions are pretty darn essential, just not for imminent survival. Under constant stress, your hormone levels may not go back to normal, which can increase your risk for things like heart disease to depression(4).
Circulating estrogen, caused by estrogen therapy or pregnancy, is a leading cause of high cortisol in women (4).
3. Adrenal gland tumors
While these tumors are rarely cancerous, they can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder where your body chronically makes too much cortisol (4).
4. Medication side effects
Some medications like oral contraceptives or corticosteroids (which treats asthma and arthritis) could be behind elevated levels. High doses of corticosteroids is a common cause of Cushing’s syndrome (6).
5. Pituitary gland conditions
Since your pituitary gland is involved in releasing cortisol, issues with the organ will produce an inappropriate amount of hormones that will trigger your adrenal glands (4).
How to manage your stress and cortisol
If you’re a relatively healthy individual, the main cause of increased cortisol and its subsequent health problems is stress! Yes, stress. And when do we ever treat stress before the problems it causes? We need to commit to lifestyle changes to live a healthy life. Admittedly, there are stressful things we can’t change like deadlines or personal relationship troubles. However, there are many things in our control that we simply don’t do. So let’s change that.
1. Commit to sleeping
Put that cup of coffee down. I used to never prioritize sleep. I grew up in a household where it was ‘finish your work first then you can sleep.’ And now I struggle to get more than 6 hours per night because I keep procrastinating on sleep! I want to challenge you (and myself) to sleep for at least 7 hours, use your bed only for sleeping, and start a bedtime routine (7). Our lack of sleep really limits our ability to, well, function. Get regular sleep for a month and you will be surprised at how amazing you feel.
Gym therapy is real. Regular exercise will make us sleep better and lower cortisol over time (7). Hop in a gym to decompress and Just make sure you exercise around 2-3 hours before you sleep (7).
3. Schedule self-care time
This can be nourishing your relationships or keeping up with your hobbies. Self-care is usually the first thing we throw away when we’re busy. And if you’re anything like me, we can forget to pick it back up. Engaging in activities we find joyful will help you live a happier, healthier, and more productive life.
Don’t become a victim of your thoughts. Learn to recognize your patterns, so you can take control. Mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce stress and your cortisol levels (7).
Written by Jessica Lu
Rachel Tudor Yoga and Embodiment Instructor in Tulum Shares Her Journey and Healing Through Movement