Understanding cortisol, the stress hormone

In today's fast-paced world, understanding and managing cortisol is the key to reducing stress, boosting your overall health and enhancing your quality of life.

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Chronic stress can have a range of negative health effects on our well-being. Commonly known as the stress hormone, cortisol plays a significant role in our body's response to stress. Understanding cortisol and how to manage it can help reduce the negative impacts of stress and support our health. In this article, we’ll explore the role of cortisol in the body, its connection to stress, and provide simple tips for managing cortisol levels.

Understanding the stress response

When we experience stress, our body’s main stress response system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, comes into play. This system can be simplified into three steps:

  1. Brain activation. Your brain senses a threat or danger, activating the hypothalamus- a brain region that processes sensory information. The hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to start a hormonal chain reaction.
  2. Hormone release. The pituitary gland releases hormones that signal the adrenal glands, located above your kidneys, to produce and release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream.
  3. Physical changes. These stress hormones then travel throughout your body triggering physical changes such as increasing your heart rate, faster breathing and heightened alertness.

You can learn more about the HPA axis stress system in this research study.

The impact of stress hormones on health

Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) increases heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies, while cortisol increases blood sugar levels. While small increases in cortisol can be helpful by increasing our alertness and providing a boost of energy to deal with threats, studies have demonstrated that high levels of cortisol over time can negatively affect the immune system, increase blood pressure, raise cholesterol levels, lead to weight gain and increase the risk of heart disease. Excessive cortisol can also harm the brain, affecting thinking, memory and learning.

How to better manage stress

Now that we understand cortisol's role in the body and its impact on our health, let's explore steps that can help manage cortisol levels and reduce the effects of chronic stress.

  • Stay active. Engage in 20-30 minutes of aerobic activity like walking, jogging, swimming or biking. If you're busy, try breaking your activity into smaller doses by parking further away from the store, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or jogging in place during commercial breaks.
  • Eat well. Elevated cortisol levels can make you crave carbohydrates, but you can combat this by eating a balanced and nutritious diet with an emphasis on fresh whole foods. Learn more about eating healthy with information from MSU Extension.
  • Cultivate friendships. Surround yourself with positive people who can support you when you're stressed. Isolation from friends and family can lead to increased cortisol levels.
  • Find joy. Having fun and laughing can reduce cortisol levels. Similarly, prioritize time for hobbies and activities that bring joy. Find ways to laugh every day, and you'll notice a difference in your stress levels.
  • Practice mindfulness. Explore calming activities and mindfulness programs to reduce stress. Deep breathing can help lower your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. You can visit MSU Extension’s Virtual Calming Room to explore different calming activities and visit our Mindfulness for Better Living page to learn more about mindfulness and sign up for a mindfulness program.
  • Prioritize sleep. Set up a regular sleep routine for better stress management. MSU Extension offers a Sleep Education for Everyone Program that teaches you how to improve your sleep hygiene and get more restful sleep. You can learn more about the program here.
  • Consider professional help. Seeking help is a brave and important step in self-care. You can learn about some support options

Many community programs can assist with stress reduction, such as Stress Less with Mindfulness and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger, which are both offered by MSU Extension. Taking care of ourselves and learning how to manage stress is essential. By following these simple steps, you can reduce cortisol levels and improve your overall health and well-being.

Opportunities to connect

Michigan State University Extension also offers a variety of programming and resources to support yourself or loved ones undergoing mental health distress. MSU Extension offers programs such as Mental Health First Aid, which can teach you how to support someone who is experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis.

For those in the agriculture industry and their families, resources and information can be found at the Managing Farm Stress website. This includes access to teletherapy services, the free virtual training Rural Resilience and much more.

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