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What Is Cortisol? Effects on the Body & Tips to Lower

Can increased cortisol impact health? According to health experts, cortisol's effects on the body are harmful - here’s what you can do about it!

What Is Cortisol? Effects on the Body & Tips to Lower


Despite popular belief, cortisol isn't the ultimate enemy. While it leads to health problems when chronically high, it also positively helps with circadian rhythm, blood sugar balance, immunity, reducing inflammation, and more. 

Follow the guidance of this article to understand and balance cortisol levels.

What Is Cortisol?

Also known as the 'stress hormone' and hydrocortisone, cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenals. The adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys and are part of the large endocrine system highly involved in regulating metabolism. 

In general, hormones are chemical messengers that help coordinate a variety of metabolic functions from sending blood to certain organs to breaking down macronutrients to maintaining core temperature and much more. 

Furthermore, cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a type of steroid hormone that specifically suppresses inflammation and controls the circadian rhythm and metabolism of the muscles, fat, liver, and bones.

The main functions of cortisol include:

• Controls circadian rhythm
• Regulating the stress response
• Helps control the body's use of fats, proteins, and carbs (blood sugar)
• Regulates blood pressure 
• Suppresses inflammation

It also plays smaller roles in contributing to good memory, increasing inherent motivation, and reducing pain sensitivity.

The body possesses innate mechanisms that help keep cortisol levels in balance, but certain situations can unhealthily move the needle towards too high or low levels.

Cortisol's Role in the Body

Cortisol is often considered in a negative light. As the main stress hormone, cortisol is secreted when the body perceives "danger" and can lead to typical "flight or fight" symptoms such as: 

• A racing heart
• Increased blood pressure
• Muscle tension
• Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. 

While these symptoms are unpleasant, they are actually quite biologically protective, allowing someone to acutely run faster, lift heavier objects and execute other, sometimes life-saving survival techniques. Cortisol is to thank when people are miraculously able to move giant boulders or cut off their own arms and run for help.

Plus, nearly every cell in the body possesses receptors for cortisol, so its effects reach wide. 

Sleep

While cortisol is most well known for wreaking havoc on metabolism, we wouldn't be able to wake up in the morning without it. In fact, cortisol secretion aims to mimic the circadian rhythm. It surges in the morning hours when energy is required to awake and naturally dips throughout the day to prepare for sleep. 

However, those under high amounts of chronic stress may abnormally secrete high amounts of cortisol throughout the day. A poor sleep cycle is perpetrated, which further stresses the body and creates a vicious cycle. 

It should also be noted bodies can adapt to different cortisol rhythms, such as those working the night shift. The body essentially reverses its cortisol patterns to remain in tune with varying energy needs.

Fight or Flight/Stress Response

When the body perceives a stressful situation, the body secretes extra cortisol to:

• Trigger the release of glucose to supply immediate energy to large muscles and organs
• Inhibit digestion so glucose will be readily available and not stored
• Narrow the arteries so blood pumps harder and faster to working muscles and organs like the heart

Fats, Proteins, and Carbs

Cortisol helps control how the body uses fats, proteins, and carbs, though the mechanisms aren't completely understood yet. Beyond initiating the release of glucose during times of high stress, it also generally helps dictate which substrate the body will use for energy. 

It's likely a complicated mechanism, but it is evident that chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with insulin resistance. This is because more glucose is secreted into the bloodstream, which necessitates more insulin secretion, and over time this leads to less sensitive cells.

Blood Pressure

Similarly to above, the exact way in which cortisol helps control blood pressure isn't fully elucidated yet. However, it probably has to do with its ability to constrict and dilate blood vessels. 

Overall, elevated cortisol levels are associated with high blood pressure. Low levels, on the other hand, are correlated with lower blood pressure.

Inflammation

Ever wonder why people receive steroids in clinical settings? Many steroids (like cortisol) reduce inflammation to then boost immunity and fight off infections better. 

However, steroids are rarely prescribed for long amounts of time because chronically high levels of steroids lead to more inflammation and less immunity.

Cortisol Effects on the Body

As a whole, the endocrine system is wildly complex, involving numerous organs that run on feedback loops to regulate hormone levels.

While the adrenal glands produce and secrete cortisol, it's regulated by the hypothalamus, a small area of the brain, and the pituitary gland, located right below the brain. The interaction of these three organs is generally referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

When cortisol levels dip, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH then directs the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). 

The latter hormone, ACTH, then stimulates the adrenals to produce and secrete specific amounts of cortisol. This means that effectively balancing cortisol levels requires the optimal function of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands.

Cortisol balance thrives within a fairly small range. And in today's busy, stressful culture doesn't easily promote positive HPA axis functioning. Instead, it's all too common to suffer from elevated or low levels of cortisol.

High Levels of Cortisol

Under high amounts of physical, mental, or emotional stress for long amounts of time, cortisol can start to accumulate. Essentially, cortisol surges in response to stressors such as work obligations, environmental toxins, and lack of sleep. And it continuously increases due to high coffee intake, very low-carb diets, and intense focus on schedules and deadlines.

For a short amount of time, one typically feels wired, like an energizer bunny with a sharp focus. In the long run, the adrenals tire, which can lead to adrenal fatigue or exhaustion. At this stage, the adrenal glands can't keep up with demands, very similar to the mechanism of insulin resistance, and they drastically reduce cortisol production and secretion. This is typically when those struggling with adrenal fatigue begin feeling and expressing symptoms of chronic fatigue.

Any type of chronic stress can trigger high cortisol levels that eventually evolve into adrenal exhaustion. However, other conditions like Cushing Syndrome, pituitary gland problems, adrenal tumors, medications, and excess estrogen levels can also spike cortisol. 

Oftentimes, high cortisol is referred to as Cushing Syndrome and specifically includes these signs and symptoms:

• Weight gain in the face and abdomen
• Fatty deposits between shoulder blades
• Wide, purple stretch marks on the stomach
• Upper arm and thigh muscle weakness
• High blood sugar or type 2 diabetes
• High blood pressure
• Excessive hair growth in females
• Osteoporosis

Other general symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:

• Weight gain around the upper back
• Rounding of the face
• Increased acne
• Thinning skin
• Bruising easily
• Frequently flushed face
• Slow wound healing
• Irritability
• Headaches
• Severe fatigue (in the last stage)

Low Levels of Cortisol

Low cortisol, otherwise called hypocortisolism is generally considered adrenal fatigue. Causes of adrenal exhaustion can be primary or secondary in nature.

Primary adrenal fatigue, also called Addison's disease, is triggered by an autoimmune reaction, where the immune system attacks healthy adrenal cells, mistaking them for toxic or foreign substances. Another primary cause of adrenal exhaustion results from damage, infection, or excessive blood loss of the adrenal glands.

Secondary adrenal fatigue results from chronic external stress, underactive pituitary glands and pituitary tumors, thyroid dysfunction, and high inflammation. Abruptly stopping corticosteroid medications after taking them for long periods can trigger the same symptoms as Cushing Syndrome mentioned above.

Symptoms of low/reduced cortisol levels include:

• Extreme fatigue
• Unintentional weight loss or further gain
• Poor appetite
• Low blood pressure

How to Lower Cortisol Levels

On occasion, autoimmune causes of high cortisol levels and/or adrenal exhaustion require medication. However, there are numerous natural ways to lower and eventually restore cortisol levels.

Get Enough Sleep

Consistently obtaining enough high-quality sleep is one of the single most important ways to balance cortisol levels. High-quality sleep refers to at least 7-9 hours of deep, restful sleep. 

Some of the best ways to naturally regulate circadian rhythm to then promote healthy cortisol levels include: 

• Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day
• Halting eating 2-4 hours before bed
• Reducing blue light and/or wearing blue light blockers
• Drinking reishi or chamomile teas
• Getting enough exercise

Manage Stress Effectively

Effective is the keyword here. Managing stress is more than going through the motions of journaling or meditating. 

While these can certainly assist in reducing stress levels, effective management often involves: 

• Maintaining good relationships
• Addressing work issues
• Reducing burnout
• Asking for help
• Talking to a therapist
• And so much more

The body can recognize when you're talking the talk but not quite walking the walk.

Exercise Regularly

Any kind of exercise induces physiological mechanisms that innately help regulate cortisol levels. Similar to how exercise positively balances insulin, it offers just enough stress that the body learns how to manage cortisol's effects better. 

It's wise not to work out within 3 hours of bedtime to prevent sleep disturbances, though.

Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet

The adrenal glands thrive on a diet of whole foods, plentiful in color and nutrients, but especially the B vitamins, magnesium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and chromium. Consuming plenty of fiber, lean protein and healthy fats bolsters adrenal health and therefore cortisol levels. 

Conversely, inflammatory foods like refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, and fast food weaken and stress the adrenals. Such stress generally raises cortisol levels over time.

Laugh More!

Indeed, laughing releases happy hormones that counteract the effects of the stress response. This is likely why those who do not take themselves too seriously have less adrenal insufficiency and health problems in general!

Consider Natural/Herbal Supplements

Some supplements may help lower cortisol, including: 

• Ashwagandha - #1 choice
• Cordyceps
• Fish oil/omega-3s
• Ginkgo
• L-theanine (in black, green, white, and oolong teas)
• Prebiotic fibers (apple, banana, dark chocolate, garlic, oats, onions, tomatoes, wheat)
• Rhodiola rosea

Note that adaptogens like ashwagandha, cordyceps, and rhodiola are especially effective at balancing cortisol because they adapt to the body. Meaning, they can also help raise cortisol in those going through the later stages of adrenal insufficiency when levels are low.

Other supplement options that are less researched include:

• Astragalus
• B vitamins
• Curcumin
• Ginseng
• Holy basil
• Lemon balm
• Magnesium 
• Magnolia bark
• N-acetylcysteine
• Schisandra
• Zinc

Before taking any sort of supplement, it is important to consult with your doctor and healthcare team prior.

References:

Alban P. Best Supplements to Reduce Cortisol (Extensive Guide). Be Brain Fit. Updated September 13, 2021. https://bebrainfit.com/supplements-reduce-cortisol/

Cortisol: What It Is, Function, Symptoms & Levels. Cleveland Clinic. Reviewed December 10, 2021. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22187-cortisol.

Lyons G. Cortisol: Function, Tests, and Effects of High & Low Levels. Cortisol: Function, Tests, and Effects of High & Low Levels. Endocrine Web. Published January 13, 2022. https://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/cortisol.

Santos-Longhurst A. High Cortisol Symptoms: What Do They Mean? Healthline. Updated August 31, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/high-cortisol-symptoms#see-a-doctor.

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on August 10, 2022. Updated on August 25, 2022.

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