How can cortisol, a hormone that your body produces naturally, be causing you harm? At first glance, that sounds like a disorder. But your body isn’t broken; it just may be a little too good at what it does!
Our bodies possess 11 separate systems that work simultaneously to protect, regulate, filter, reproduce, move, support, think, and much more. Every organ and cell involved in these amazing processes plays its part is sustaining and optimizing our lives.
However, despite the marvelous design of our bodies, sometimes they can work against us.
There are extreme instances such as massive allergic reactions, or auto-immune disorders such as AIDS. In these cases, the body’s natural defenses turn on itself, to dramatic effect.
But there are many other ways that the body can be its own worst enemy. More mild instances include springtime sinus allergies, high fever, and inconvenient or incapacitating swelling following a physical injury.
All of these things are the result of the body attempting to protect itself, but causing more harm than good.
The same phenomenon occurs on the hormonal level as well. Hormones direct your body into different states, and dictate almost every change that occurs. But research has discovered that the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ is actually much more present in many of us than it ought to be.
Cortisol is commonly known as “The stress hormone” because cortisol levels rise and fall with stress. When cortisol is elevated, the body begins to prioritize immediate performance and function.
That’s perfect when a bear is chasing you through the woods, but not so ideal over longer periods, when threats to your life are not present.
“Under the influence of elevated cortisol, our bodies are better prepared for immediate demands, but at the cost of the systems that keep us healthy and happy in the longer-term.”
When cortisol levels remain elevated over longer periods of time, the body isn’t allowed to enter into restful healing states, and the results of continued elevation can actually be concerning.
So why are cortisol levels staying too high for so many people?
The basic problem is this: Our bodies don’t know the difference between the life-endangering immediate threats that our ancestors experienced on occasion, and the persistent nagging stresses of a modern life.
To be accurate, your body will not produce the same amount of cortisol during a traffic jam, as during the opening salvos of a fist fight. But constant stress elicits cortisol levels that are elevated enough to prevent the proper prevalence of restful states. Our bodies are reacting to modern, fast-paced living by keeping us in a state of physical and mental readiness, at the expense of our long-term health.
The Sciency Bit
So what does all this actually look like in the body?
When a stressor is introduced, your body kicks into action to give you everything you need to overcome the situation. One of the key elements of producing that preparedness is the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has an array of effects on the body, but perhaps its most important function is to make energy readily available.
Cortisol accomplishes this task by dumping our glucose stores for immediate use. It further promotes ready energy by inhibiting the production of insulin.
Under normal circumstances, high levels of glucose in the blood would cause a corresponding amount of insulin production in order to bring the blood sugar back to healthier levels. But cortisol prevents that normal mechanism, keeping your blood rich with the glucose that can be used by any of the cells that are being used to react to the stressor.
Cortisol also works with epinephrine to increase blood flow and restrict arteries. The result of this action is increased blood pressure and flow, essentially calling the body to attention with fresh and pressing energy-rich blood.
The functional results of elevated cortisol are useful, and often desirable. Because of the surplus of energy, and enhancement of blood flow, cortisol leaves you feeling awake, alert, responsive, and ready to handle what is in front of you.
The Consequences Of Elevated Cortisol
Although cortisol is a vital part of keeping us prepared to react to stress, everything comes at a price. Elevated blood sugar, and blood pressure alike are bad signs for our long-term health. When cortisol levels remain elevated, the body is kept in an unnatural state of readiness that is taxing, and prevents us from entering into the natural restful states that are meant to make up the majority of our life. When our body can’t relax, it can’t heal and rest and remain healthy.
In fact, perpetually elevated cortisol levels can lead to dramatic health consequences. Some of these include: Weight gain, blood sugar issues (including diabetes), gastrointestinal problems, fertility and sexual performance issues, and immune system suppression.
Under the influence of elevated cortisol, our bodies are better prepared for immediate demands, but at the cost of the systems that keep us healthy and happy in the longer term.
How To Correct The Issue
It’s important to understand that cortisol is not (at least not always) a bad thing. Elevated levels gives us an advantage in situations where peak performance is essential. There’s also a normal ebb and flow to our cortisol levels outside of a stress reaction. Cortisol naturally rises in the mornings, causing us to slowly feel more and more awake, and to have energy to get our day under way. As the day progresses, those levels fall, until we are ready to fall asleep once again in the evening.
So the goal shouldn’t be to get rid of cortisol completely. Cortisol has an important role to play in our lives.
Instead, our goal should be to make sure that cortisol isn’t robbing us of our long-term health, by allowing it to remain unnaturally elevated.
There are a few approaches to bringing cortisol back to healthy levels. Some experts suggest big lifestyle changes, or diets that are designed to decrease inflammation in the body (a known catalyst for cortisol production).
But we tend to favor a more moderated approach that focuses on the primary cause of elevated levels: Stress.
Your adrenal glands produce more cortisol, because your mind, and entire nervous system believes that you NEED to be at peak performance more often than is the reality. Your body believes this because you are over-stressed. The body simply doesn’t understand that scheduling conflicts, performance pressures, and pumping the brakes in stop-and-go traffic are not exactly threats to your life. Your brain receives the signals of stress, and tries to give you what you need.
So the key is to outsmart your nervous system. When you accurately understand the nature of your stressors, as well as the way that your body may be overreacting to them, you can take the steps necessary to bring your body’s reaction back into line with reality.
Fixing the problem is all about stress relief.
We could spend a whole article talking about ways to relieve stress, and make your life more enjoyable. And maybe we will...
But for now, try some of these easy tips to take some of the stress out of your life, and out of your body:
- Meditate for a short while
- Get plenty of sleep
- Make time to laugh
- Schedule a massage
- Avoid Caffeine, especially later in the day
- Listen to music.
Even chewing gum can lower stress levels. Chewing gum sends the signal to your body that you are eating, so the situation cannot be that serious, leading to lowered cortisol levels. It’s a clever way to trick your body into chilling out.
Ultimately, you know what works best for you. What are your triggers, and what helps you focus on the bigger picture and unwind? Make it a priority to be in a great state of mind. Allow your cortisol to be at a healthier level, and enjoy the experience of a less stressful life.