Taking care of your mental health is always important, but it is crucial when stress levels around COVID-19 are substantial. Long-term anxiety and stress can harm your physical and psychological health. Cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) is produced by the adrenal glands. It increases when we are anxious or stressed, and it decreases when we are relaxed. When cortisol levels go up, all of the body’s energy is directed toward dealing with the stressor rather than controlling other body processes such as the immune and digestive systems. While cortisol’s brief discharge can support you to flee the threat, when cortisol levels are too high for far too long, this hormone can harm you more than it helps. This can contribute to a plethora of health problems later in life.
What are the consequences of High Cortisol?
Over the last 20 years, research has primarily revealed that moderate to high cortisol levels can lead to a variety of health problems, including:
Chronic illness: Long-term cortisol elevation may increase your chance of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and other chronic illnesses.
Insufficient energy and/or difficulty sleeping: It may impede sleep hormones, affecting sleep duration and quality.
Weight gain: Cortisol has been shown to boost appetite and signal the body to switch metabolism to fat storage.
Difficulty in focusing. Some people complain of difficulty focusing and a lack of mental clarity, also known as “brain fog.”
Immune system dysfunction: High cortisol levels can impair the immune system, making it harder to fight off infections.
Cushing’s syndrome: Extremely high cortisol levels can cause Cushing’s syndrome, a rare but severe disease.
High cortisol levels can be induced from many underlying factors such as chronic stress, overactivity or cancer of the pituitary or adrenal glands, and medication side effects. Furthermore, pre-existing chronic disease may raise cortisol levels, resulting in a “chicken or the egg” case. As a result, it is best to consult with a qualified health care professional to find the root cause of your health problems.
Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels
Excess cortisol can be caused by a tumor or as an adverse reaction to certain medications. Cortisol excess can result in Cushing’s syndrome. Among the symptoms are:
- a flushed face
- high blood pressure
- muscle weakness
- frequent urination
- increased thirst
- rapid weight gain in the face and abdomen
- changes in mood, such as feeling irritable or low
- decreased sex drive
- bruises or purple stretch marks appearing on the skin
- irregular or cessation of menstruation
Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels
If the brain-adrenal gland interaction is working correctly, the body should regulate cortisol production as needed. However, levels of cortisol can sometimes remain high even after a stressful situation has been resolved. This can be harmful to one’s health. The following suggestions may help to reduce cortisol levels:
People with chronic sleep problems such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, or shift work have elevated cortisol levels. Rotating shift workers have been associated with poorer health outcomes. In addition, insomnia is a sleep disorder that relates to difficulty sleeping. Many factors can contribute to it, such as stress and obstructive sleep apnea. This can lead to a rise in circulating cortisol, which influences the daily hormone patterns, energy levels, and other aspects of health.
Deep breathing is a straightforward stress-reduction method that can be used anywhere. Controlled breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps decrease cortisol levels. According to research, it brings down cortisol levels, alleviates depression symptoms, and enhances memory. This type of practice is common in mindfulness-based techniques like yoga, meditation, tai chi, and qigong, which emphasizes breathing and the mind-body bond.
Physical activity is good for one’s health and can lift one’s spirits. On the other hand, strenuous exercise can cause a spike in cortisol levels since this is the body’s way of dealing with the added stress caused by activity. The adequate amount of exercise is determined by various factors, such as a person’s physical fitness, and these factors influence how much cortisol the body releases during exercise.
Regular physical activities can mean exercise, and specific types of equipment can help make this possibly easier to do. These days, many of us work from home, and we barely get enough physical activity, especially when we’re working endless hours sitting behind the dining or kitchen table. Consider using a height-adjustable desk along with an under-desk bike to help you maintain movement and mild to moderate workout even when completing tasks behind a desk, whether at home or office.
A person attempting to reduce cortisol levels should eat a healthy, balanced diet and limit their sugar intake. Some foods that may help to maintain cortisol levels are:
black or green tea
bananas and pears
probiotics in foods containing soluble fiber
probiotics in food such as yogurt
Drinking lots of water to prevent dehydration also contributes to lower cortisol levels.
Friends and family can bring a lot of joy and a lot of stress into your life. Levels of cortisol are a reflection of these complexities. According to the research on cortisol in hair, cortisol levels in children with secure and pleasant family life are lower than in children from homes with increased levels of conflict. A study of 88 couples’ conflicts discovered that non-judgmental mindfulness resulted in a faster cortisol return to acceptable levels following a heated argument. As a result, showing empathy and compassion to your partner and getting the same back may enable you to manage your cortisol levels. Support from friends and family can also aid in the reduction of cortisol levels in the face of adversity.
Cortisol levels were measured in one research in children undergoing a routine medical procedure. Those who had a dog with them during the procedure had relatively low cortisol levels than those who did not. Another study discovered that interaction with a dog was more effective for cortisol level regulation than communication with a caring friend during a difficult situation. Several studies have found that direct interaction with an animal buddy reduces stress and cortisol levels. Even if you don’t have a pet of your own, interacting with someone else’s pet can provide significant effects.
Supplements should not be used in place of a well-balanced diet and should be supervised by a doctor. However, if suggested, the essential mineral used in clinical practice is magnesium, which helps control cortisol levels. Vitamins C, B12, and folic acid can also aid in cortisol digestion.
Hobbies can be a satisfying and rewarding way to live a fuller and healthier life, leading to an enhanced sense of well-being. Research on substance abuse treatment discovered that gardening reduced cortisol levels. It also appeared to enhance the quality of life more than standard occupational therapy. Playing an instrument, crafting, gardening, drawing—doing things that make you happy are all excellent ways to distract yourself from stressful thoughts and circumstances.
You don’t have to implement all of these suggestions at once; doing so can be daunting. Making small, gradual changes is the best move for achieving long-term, positive results. Introduce one or two at a time into your ritual until they become a habit, then gradually add others. Slow but steady wins the race most of the time.