The numbers don’t lie. Millions of people suffer from burn-out due to work-related stress. Let alone how many people experience stress from other environmental factors.
And these are not favorable figures, because long-term stress has adverse effects on your health. There is a clear link between stress and obesity. This has everything to do with the hormone cortisol, also called the stress hormone.
In this article, you will discover more about cortisol and read tips on how to lower it in a natural way.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is released during prolonged stress and/or tension. The hormone is produced in the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are small organs that lie on top of the kidneys. They are responsible for the production of various hormones.
They also take care of the transport of these hormones through the bloodstream. The function of the adrenal glands is essential to maintain all functions in the body (1).
Cortisol always follows up on adrenaline and is only produced for a reason, namely prolonged stress or tension. If the stress is short-lived, the initial production of adrenaline is sufficient.
An example of adrenaline is that you are frightened of a suddenly braking car and that you can swerve within a second. This speed and the extra responsiveness is created by the adrenaline rush.
In prehistoric times the primeval man desperately needed this in order to be able to react quickly during unexpected (emergency) situations (‘fighting or fleeing’). When the moment has passed and the danger has passed, the adrenaline disappears from your system again.
If the exciting or stressful situation lasts longer, the body produces cortisol. For example, if you have to give an important presentation or if you have to deliver an intensive sports performance. Due to the stress prior to or during this activity, the adrenal glands automatically produce the necessary hormones.
Cortisol is a body’s own hormone that is released when a longer lasting effort is required. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, just like adrenaline.
Functions of Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that our body always needs to function properly on several fronts. It contains the following important properties (2):
- Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Cortisol helps with a healthy sleep-wake rhythm.
- Cortisol regulates blood pressure.
- Cortisol supports metabolism.
- Cortisol supports our memory and concentration.
The production of cortisol therefore has a positive function. It is also nice that we can count on the production of cortisol if we have to perform under higher pressure for a longer period of time.
During pregnancy, the expectant mother also produces more cortisol than usual. This is a natural way to give the body some extra energy, which it can use hard at that moment.
The extra production of cortisol due to stress and tension offers us the following specific advantages:
- More blood goes to the muscles so you’re stronger.
- Your immune system is more active, so you heal faster.
- It provides better focus and concentration because emotions are less registered.
After the stressful situation the body comes to rest again and the increased cortisol production decreases to a normal level.
Cortisol has an essential role in the daily functions of the body. It works anti-inflammatory, supports our sleep-wake rhythm, metabolism and regulates blood pressure. In addition, during prolonged stress, we benefit from the positive properties of cortisol in terms of our immune system, memory and concentration.
But what happens to your body if we keep making too much cortisol?
Long-term effects of cortisol?
#1 Digestive problems
The gastrointestinal system does not get enough blood. This degrades the function. The effect varies from person to person and can vary from a bowel movement that is too fast or too slow. It can lead to abdominal cramps and gas formation, resulting in an inflated abdomen.
The absorption of vitamins is hampered by digestive problems.
#2 Insomnia and chronic fatigue
It is difficult to find the necessary rest and sleep well. This makes it difficult for people to fall asleep and/or wake up in the middle of the night. It is only during a healthy, deep night’s sleep that the body manages to rest sufficiently and recover.
#3 Blood pressure problems
Where cortisol is naturally a blood pressure regulator, too much cortisol is counterproductive. Blood pressure can become too low or too high. This can cause dizziness, a shaky feeling, fainting and even heart problems. The body has lost its natural blood pressure balance.
#4 Pain in the limbs
The body is in a constant state of tension and this requires a lot of energy. A lot of glucose is needed for this extra energy. Your body gets the glucose from proteins from the muscles. The effect is that the muscles are broken down. This ultimately results in an increase in muscle pain, muscle stiffness and injuries.
Of course, chronic fatigue, stress and tension, headaches. In addition, the constant production of cortisol requires a lot of moisture, vitamins and minerals from the body. Moisture deficiency causes, among other things, headaches.
#6 Kidney complaints
The kidneys are under high pressure to constantly discharge waste products and also to restore the fluid balance. As a result, the kidneys become exhausted, resulting in fatigue complaints and reduced functioning.
#7 Skin problems
The focus of the body is not recovery and healing. This results in dry skin that becomes more prone to inflammation, dull hair and brittle nails. The skin is also less well-blooded.
#8 Weight gain
The production of cortisol simultaneously produces an increase in insulin in the body. This creates an increased energy in the body. When this additional supply of energy is not used, it is stored as fat.
The liver is also working non-stop to dissolve the waste products from the cortisol and extra energy. As a result, the liver is less able to perform its normal tasks, such as breaking down fats. The fats are stored around the waist and organs.
In addition to the fact that the liver does not break down the fat, tension and lack of sleep often causes us to feel more comfortable with fat, salt and sweet food instead of healthy products. Because of the stiff muscles and fatigue there is also too little movement. This promotes weight gain.
#9 Problems with memory.
The memory and emotion part of the brain is affected. This part, the hippocampus, can shrink by 10% and therefore the short term memory works less well. You are also less sensitive to emotions.
The long-term effect of a chronic too high level of cortisol is felt throughout your body. Sleep rhythm, digestion, recovery, memory and immune system are disturbed. The body cannot recover properly and gets out of balance.
How dangerous is cortisol?
In the short term, it is a fantastic, natural tool and absolutely harmless.
When the production of cortisol does not stop, or becomes chronic, we must conclude that cortisol causes damage to the body. The balance and the various bodily functions are completely disturbed.
The aforementioned list of long-term effects may be dangerous. The body goes into a negative spiral because of the enormous pressure it’s under. A downward, vicious circle that can lead to burnout, physical problems and even depression.
In other words, we need to recover well from increased cortisol production. But in today’s busy and stressful society it can be a challenge to avoid it.
How to lower cortisol?
Of course, prevention is better than cure. But also if you experience the aforementioned complaints and symptoms; it is possible to recover. It just requires a change in your current lifestyle. To prevent or cure, it is advisable to read the following advice.
#1 Measuring is knowing
Start with a visit to your family doctor if you are already experiencing complaints or symptoms or if you are experiencing a lot of stress and tension in your life. Through your GP you can have your cortisol level, your blood pressure and any lack of essential vitamins and minerals examined.
#2 Investigate the triggers
How does your feeling of stress or tension increase? Try to figure it out for yourself. The best way to do that is by asking yourself what gives you energy and what costs you a lot of energy? These can be tasks, activities or persons. (6,7)
#3 Consultation with your environment
Now that you know what your triggers are, it is advisable to indicate in your environment that things are too much trouble for you at the moment. Sometimes you have too much on your plate and it is wiser to sound the alarm in time. Tasks may be redistributed and personal obligations may be postponed or adjusted. (5,10)
#4 Sleep rhythm
Maintain a steady sleep-wake rhythm. Go to bed at the same time every day in a cool, dark and quiet bedroom. Make sure there are no stimuli nearby, read a book or try a relaxation exercise. Try to avoid taking sleeping pills or talk to your doctor about this. (8)
#5 Talk to a professional
Even though you are aware of your triggers and the changes that need to take place, you may still get stuck in the execution. Consult with your GP and ask for advice. A professional can help you to realize changes in your body, mind and diet. (7)
#6 Drink enough
Your body needs fluids. Water, herbal teas, an occasional smoothie, lots of vegetables and some fruit will help you dispel waste products and restore your moisture balance. As a result, bodily functions will improve again and you will recover your energy level. Your skin, hair and nails will thank you too. (7)
#7 Move (outdoors)
Moving quietly, preferably in the open air, relaxes body and mind. It stabilizes your blood pressure and ensures a healthy blood flow. It also activates healthy digestion and helps to build up a healthy sleep-wake rhythm.
#8 Go do nice things
Listening to music, picking up a hobby, yoga, massage, reading a book, visiting a sauna etc. Go find out what makes you happy. Above all, make sure you don’t experience any pressure from it so that you don’t build up subcutaneous tension. (8)
#9 Change your diet
Be aware that nutrition can help you enormously in a stressful situation. Avoid sugars and fast carbohydrates to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Eat enough fiber, protein and healthy fats to guarantee your digestion and good gastrointestinal function. Healthy fats also help to restore your hormonal balance and the functioning of the brain.
Very important; good digestion and intestinal function also improve the absorption of vitamins and antioxidants. This restores your energy and improves the immune system. (9)
Too much stress and tension results in a chronic too high cortisol level. This is reversible or preventable. By taking a critical look at the structure of your life and diet and by using the right help, the cortisol level will start to stabilize again. This results in a healthy and energetic person who can take a beating again.
If your body is constantly under stress and tension, chronic production of cortisol occurs. The hormone is by nature not meant to be active non-stop in your body.
In addition, it simply takes too much energy to continuously produce cortisol; something we are not built on.
Your body can’t calm down in between and restore the natural hormone balance. This results in a constant high level of cortisol that has various negative effects on body and mind:
- It inhibits healthy digestion.
- Causes insomnia and overtiredness.
- Causes hypertension.
- Causes muscle breakdown.
- Could cause a headache.
- Causes kidney problems.
- Causes bad skin, brittle nails and dull hair.
- Can lead to weight gain.
- May cause memory problems.
In the long term, there is a risk of burn-out, physical injury and even depression. To prevent this or to reverse the chronic production of cortisol, it is advisable to make changes in the areas of exercise, relaxation and diet.
The adjustments can be far-reaching. The use of professional help is very important here.