Understanding Me - Cortisol

What Is Cortisol?

 

Cortisol is a bit of a buzzword in the health and wellbeing industry at the moment, everyone says you need to be aware of your cortisol levels etc. But what exactly is it?...

 

Cortisol is a hormone (a kind of body signalling chemical) produced in your adrenal glands, a pair of glands located just above each kidney. These glands release cortisol into your bloodstream which then distributes it all over your body.

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What does it do?

We all need a small amount of cortisol to function healthily. For example, our bodies produce cortisol to help us wake up and get going in the mornings, it gets your muscles awake and ready for movement. 

Cortisol also works to balance blood sugar and lower inflammation in the body.

However, whenever we are anxious, stressed, scared, upset, angry or frustrated we produce extra cortisol to get our muscles ready for action. Cortisol is part of your fight or flight response, it is introduced into your body at times of stress to help you to cope with the immediate danger you are in. 

High levels of cortisol shut down non-essential systems in your body to enable you to deal with danger. Anything that saps energy or slows you down is down-regulated until you are safe again. So your digestive, reproductive and immune systems, are all put on hold, and hair, bone and muscle growth/repair is reduced. 

Whilst all this is happening under the influence of cortisol, another hormone, adrenaline, is released to increase your heart rate and prepare your muscles to move quickly.  There are also changes in your brain to ensure that you focus solely on the danger and act as fast as possible.

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You find it much more difficult to see emotion/attitudes in others. This is because your mind is looking for danger, and to do that it doesn't need to be concerned with others feelings. 

 

Other people's actions and words are also filtered through this ‘danger’ prism, meaning we often see things negatively when they were not meant that way. 

Afterwards, once you are safe from danger, cortisol reduces to normal levels again in your body and all your systems return to normal.

Why does all this matter to me?

 

The amount of cortisol in your body matters because very high levels of this hormone effectively shuts your body down to the bare minimum it needs to survive in a life and death situation, and stops all the repair and maintenance processes which you need to keep you healthy and well.

 

While this works well when we face something genuinely life-threatening and short-term, it’s no good if what is stressing us is the constant cocktail of daily challenges we experience just living our lives - or indeed the ever present fears and stresses of living in a society struggling to manage a coronavirus outbreak!

We end up spending days, weeks or years running our bodies at reduced efficiency. So our immune systems don’t work properly, our digestive systems don’t digest our food fully, and our metabolism doesn’t burn fat effectively leaving us tired, overweight, often unwell and feeling more and more anxious and depressed. 

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If the tensions and stresses of everyday life start to feel too threatening and we start producing a constantly high level of cortisol in our bodies, it can lead to a range of negative health effects.

These include chronic feelings of anxiety, poor sleep, lower immunity to disease, and digestive problems. Producing too much cortisol can also upset the balance of other hormones in the body and may interfere with fertility.

Not everything about the action of cortisol on the body is yet understood, but the bottom line is that too much of it is associated with poor health and mood, and as we get stressed our cortisol levels increase.

How to create a healthy level of cortisol in your body

 

Here are some things to begin to incorporate into your life:

 

  • Meditation - having a calm mind/body helps regulate cortisol production.

Regular readers of our social media posts or website will know how strongly we advocate taking up daily meditation. Research suggests that back in caveman days, we’d all sit around the fire of an evening staring into the flames and relaxing after the day’s labour. Meditation simulates this behaviour, tapping into our natural evolutionary relaxation response, calming our amygdala and allowing our bodies to enter the ‘rest and digest’ state. 

 

  • Regular exercise or take up an active hobby.

Our bodies are designed to move, millions of years of evolution have created amazingly complex systems that rely on each other to work at their best. For example, your digestive system needs your muscular system in order to operate efficiently, constant moving, bending, twisting and lifting keeps everything moving in your digestive system and that means your food is digested better, extracting more nutrients from your food, meaning you have a healthier body. Moving more releases happy hormones and chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, meaning your mood is better. These are just a couple of examples but all of your bodies systems need each other to work together and cannot be maintained on their own. This is why a balanced lifestyle is so important.

 

  • Get at least 7-8 hours sleep each night

Sleep is something many people underestimate. It is possibly the most important element of our bodily requirements. Lack of sleep can cause a host of issues from irritability and tiredness to long term issues such as depression (of the bodily systems, not just of the mind). As we sleep and return to the fully rested state cortisol levels naturally fall, helping us ‘re-set’ for the next day.

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  • Spend time being with a pet

Spending time in nature walking a dog or petting one at home releases calming hormones and is very soothing and relaxing. It can reduce your blood pressure and take your mind off your stress. Caring for others can be very therapeutic and can boost your mood and therefore your overall health.

 

  • Laugh frequently.

Laughing is another underrated health-boosting activity. It helps move your gut, it releases endorphins, it boosts your mood and is infectious so laughing helps others around you as well. Laugh even if it feels a little forced, research shows that you get the same benefits as spontaneous laughter because your brain finds it hard to tell the difference!

 

  • Eat a healthy diet.

Bit of an obvious one but also often overlooked in many senses. Our diet not only fuels our body, enabling us to rebuild and repair our physical selves, it also influences our mood and mental state. Days of nutrient-poor food not only is bad for our bodies but that has a knock-on effect on our mood as well; it can leave you feeling flat and lacking in energy, which can lead to craving more unhealthy comfort food and so the cycle continues. 

 

  • Spend quality time with loved ones/doing something you love.

Doing enjoyable activities and spending time in the comfort of loved ones makes us let go and feel safe. We relax and our danger radar is dialled down. 

This gives our bodies time to calm, bring cortisol down to normal levels and energy is diverted back to all our repair/refresh/restore body processes - the processes that help us experience true wellbeing and live longer.