Cortisol is one of the hormones responsible for controlling our “fight-or-flight” instinct, so it’s no surprise that cortisol levels are closely correlated with stress. The Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report found more than one-third of those surveyed experienced stress on a daily basis. This number jumps to over 50% in the United States, making us one of the most stressed countries in the world — and this report was published well before anyone was aware of the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic would cause.
Although chronic stress is pervasive and commonplace, its effects are toxic to long-term health and well-being. It can impact the way your body manages cortisol production and cortisol secretion over time, for example, causing you to operate with less-than-optimal levels of cortisol in your blood. Prolonged high cortisol levels can lead to damaging outcomes like heart rate or blood pressure irregularities, decreased immune system function, or the development of conditions like Cushing’s syndrome or hypercortisolism.
One of the keys to naturally lowering your cortisol levels is to learn how to manage the stress you face in your daily life.
How to Identify High Stress Levels
Cortisol is your body’s primary steroid hormone, and it plays an important role in many vital processes and functions. It is regulated by your HPA axis — the area of your brain made up of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands — which will stimulate cortisol production and secretion based on the continuous feedback it receives from the numerous cortisol receptors in your body.
During a stress response, the HPA axis works to increase cortisol levels in your blood while simultaneously suppressing functions that are non-essential to avoiding “danger.” When functioning correctly, your body will reduce cortisol production, restore function, and return to stasis once the threat has passed.
The process described above is critical to survival — remember, we’re talking about “fight-or-flight” — but when you’re exposed to chronic stress, your body doesn’t get a chance to recover. The amount of cortisol in your blood remains elevated, and your systems stay on high alert. The hormonal imbalance that ensues can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- Neurological trouble like headaches, migraines, and decreased cognitive function
- Increased incidence of depression, anxiety, or mood swings
- Cardiovascular changes that can lead to elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and risk of heart attack
- Reproduction effects like irregular periods, low sex drive, and fertility problems
- Weakened immune system function
- Digestive and metabolic issues like heartburn, stomachaches, and high blood sugar
- Muscle weakness, bruising, and fatigue
- Weight gain
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your healthcare provider may order a cortisol test — a saliva, urine, or blood sample used to measure the amount of the stress hormone present in your system. The results can rule out significant medical conditions that could influence cortisol production, like pituitary gland problems, an adrenal gland tumor, or an autoimmune disease.
If your symptoms don’t warrant immediate testing or your test results are normal, the most critical step you can take to lower your cortisol levels is to learn how to manage stress more effectively.
Identifying the Causes of Stress
We all experience three primary types of stress. The types of stressors you’re exposed to have an important role in determining the most appropriate management tactics for naturally reducing the levels of cortisol in your body.
This kind of stress is short-term and concerned primarily with the recent past or immediate future. Examples of acute stressors include things like:
- Narrowly avoiding a car accident on your way to dinner
- Sneaking a project in just under the deadline for work or school
- Having an argument with your partner that you later resolve
Acute stress can lead to short episodes of gastrointestinal upset, increased heart rate, muscle weakness, or related symptoms.
Episodic Acute Stress
This stress is the cumulative effect of each little worry (or acute stressor) as they begin to add up. Episodic acute stress can be crushing, leaving those experiencing it feeling like they are continually operating in crisis-mode. It is damaging to your mental and physical well-being and tends to impact life and relationships. Examples of episodic acute stressors are similar to above, but are exacerbated by a sense of foreboding — the idea that if something can go wrong, it will.
The symptoms of episodic acute stress are also closely aligned with acute stress, but with greater frequency and longer durations. This kind of stress is also more likely to manifest as panic attacks, high blood pressure, or noticeable mood swings.
Chronic stress occurs when you’ve been dealing with any combination of stressors for an extended period, especially those that feel outside your control. Examples of chronic stressors include things like:
- Constant pressure to perform or achieve at work or home that leave you feeling inadequate
- Unfulfilling relationships
- Inability to change the environment around you, whether a personal situation (like limited financial capacity), or more significant concerns for the world (like poverty, racism, or recent effects of COVID-19)
- Any long-term, cumulative effect of the other stressors above
Those facing chronic stress are more likely to experience depression, heart disease, insomnia, and a litany of the other symptoms caused by high cortisol levels.
Ideas for Lowering Stress
Managing stress is crucial to naturally lowering the levels of cortisol in your body. As you learn to recognize stressors in your daily life, you can proactively incorporate approaches like those below to limit their negative effects.
Quiet Your Mind
Practicing daily meditation, engaging in regular exercise, or finding a creative outlet (like listening to music, journaling, or drawing) can help prevent overwhelm and offer you somewhere to turn when you need to reduce your stress levels.
Spend Time Outdoors
Extensive research exists to support the claim that nature is a remedy for stress and anxiety. You can double-dip the benefits by going for a run at the park, walking your dog around the block, or meditating or writing in your backyard.
Get Quality Sleep
It can be difficult to sleep when your stress level is high, and your stress levels are more likely to rise when you’re not sleeping. Getting in control of this vicious cycle is crucial in your ability to manage your cortisol levels naturally. Creating a sleep routine can help.
Talk About It
Whether you seek out a professional or ask a friend to lend an ear, talking about the stress you’re facing will help your brain process. This not only serves an essential purpose in the moment, but also provides a framework for dealing with similar situations in the future.
Stress management isn’t one-size-fits-all, so don’t be afraid to try more than one approach. You’ll notice the difference when you find the combination that works best for you.
Ready to Start Combatting Your Stressors Naturally?
Cortisol plays an important role as your body’s primary steroid hormone, but erratic hormone levels related to prolonged exposure to stress can have damaging, long-term effects. Learning to manage stress is vital in reducing the levels of cortisol in your system and allowing your body to operate at its best.
For questions about the impacts of high cortisol levels or chronic stress, information about naturopathic medicine, or to schedule an appointment, contact Dr. Karen Threlkel today.