Understanding cortisol, the stress hormone

Elevated levels of cortisol compromise health and well-being. Learn solutions for improved outcomes.

Man with both hands to his face in front of a sunset.

Daily stress can, and does, affect our general health and well-being. We are all hard-wired at birth to react to stress in ways that protect ourselves from things that are perceived as harmful. The hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the brain sets off an alarm when we are faced with a threat. Nerves and hormones signal our adrenal glands (located near the kidneys) to release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Our bodies react with a fight, flight or freeze response. The adrenaline that is released when we are stressed increases one’s heart rate, raises blood pressure and readies the body’s energy supplies. Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, also increases blood sugars. Small increases in cortisol have positive effects on our response to stress; we often gain a quick burst of energy, heightened memory and a lowered sensitivity to pain. Once your body has been alerted, it reacts with these physiological changes.

If your body is prepared for fight, flight or freeze reaction, there has to be a physical release of cortisol or it will build up in the blood and have negative effects on our health. Increased cortisol levels caused by chronic stress can be responsible for a decrease in immune functioning, an increase in weight gain, difficulty losing weight and increased blood pressure, cholesterol and risks of heart disease. Sustained cortisol increases can actually harm the brain and impair thinking, memory and learning. It is not unusual to have difficulty thinking and processing, called “going blank” when cortisol is interfering with brain activity.

As important as cortisol is in assisting our body when we are threatened, it is just as important that we learn ways to lower cortisol when we are stressed by everyday problems and concerns. Michigan State University Extension recommends five simple tips that you can begin to practice today.

  • Make regular physical activity a part of your day. Just 20-30 minutes of aerobic activity such as walking, jogging, swimming or bike riding can lower cortisol. Too busy for exercise? Break your activity into smaller doses by parking a longer distance from the store, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, getting out of your chair and standing to do menial tasks or jogging in place during television commercial breaks.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Practice good nutrition. Elevated cortisol can make you crave carbohydrates. Be aware of that tendency and arm yourself with fresh foods that can fill you up and provide healthy nutrients.
  • Nurture healthy friendships. Isolation from friends and family can lead to increased cortisol levels. Surround yourself with positive people who can support you when you are stressed.
  • Look for the humor! Having fun and laughter can reduce cortisol levels. Dr. William Fry of Stanford University has studied the benefits of laughter and the link to lowered stress hormones. Find ways to laugh every day. There is a connection between laughter, humor and good health.
  • Practice mindfulness and/or meditation. Meditation can reduce anxiety and lower cortisol. Deep breathing causes the vagus nerve to signal your nervous system to lower your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol. Taking just ten deep breaths can assist with relaxation and provide a sense of calm. Take advantage of class offerings from MSU Extension like Stress Less through Mindfulness and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger to learn about stress reduction for improved social emotional health.

Take advantage of the many community programs that are offered for stress reduction or anger management. There are many free phone apps that can assist with mindful practices. RELAX: Alternatives to Anger is a resource that is available in an online, self-paced format. Access your local library for resources that can assist you in learning about stress reduction and consult your family physician if you need additional assistance.

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