The fast-paced world of the 21st century is placing high demands on humans all the time. Without realising it, your day-to-day habits may actually be wreaking havoc on your body. How? Because your cortisol levels are constantly peaking. While a certain level of cortisol is normal and plays an important part in your body’s’ functions, becoming aware of how your everyday choices influence your stress levels can play a huge role in both mental and physical health.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol, a hormone produced and secreted by the adrenal glands, helps to maintain blood sugar levels, balance hormones, manage inflammation and provide energy to the body. It all goes back to our ancestors, long before Instagram and matcha lattes were around and we were just fighting to survive.
Your body is smarter than you realise and has many defence mechanisms ready to come into play when you are in danger. When your body perceives a threat, it releases a stress response, also known as “fight or flight”. This stress response triggers the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands and brain throughout the body. Blood flow increases to the heart and lungs to help you run away faster or to fight, while functions such as digestion and reproduction are shut down and put on the back burner as they are not important for the state of survival.
While blessed with opportunities and the capacity to juggle a million things, modern-day living can be seen as a “threat” to your body, placing you in a prolonged state of fight or flight. Often, the threats your body might be responding to are not real dangers, but smaller stressors of the contemporary world such as work, relationship issues, social media or just living in a fast-paced city.
Establishing the difference between short- and long-term stress is important, yet recognising it in your body is even more so. Small stress can be motivating and is essential in some situations, but in everyday life, long-term stress can contribute to illness and create unwanted problems.
Nutritionist Tess Boyer says, “Cortisol is the driver of our fight or flight response. If we are constantly in this state, our body inhibits functions such as reproduction and digestion. When cortisol levels are increased, other hormones such as estrogen and testosterone can rise and result in decreases in progesterone, resulting in menstrual cycle problems, mood fluctuations and acne.”
Signs that your cortisol may be too high include:
- Weight gain
- Back pain
- Brain fog
- Low sex drive
- Irregular periods
- Poor immune system
So what are some of the ways your cortisol can be further heightened without you realising? Many stressors can trigger your sympathetic responses and result in cortisol increase, but, like everything, this varies based on the individual. Some common triggers which may produce excess cortisol in your body include caffeine, high-intensity exercise, stressful work environments, managing relationships, an unbalanced diet and poor sleep.
It is important to learn how to manage stress in your often-frantic routine. While cutting back on a few coffees during your day may seem easy enough, it is important to find a balance in all areas. Science is looking into how too much high-intensity exercise is throwing many women’s bodies out of whack, leading to an overproduction of cortisol and a high percentage of digestive and hormonal issues. Stress activates a hormonal pathway in the body called the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis which, when activated, produces high levels of cortisol. An excessive amount of this release can suppress normal levels of reproductive hormones. More often than not, reproductive irregularities can be blamed on a combination of factors including over-exercising as well as minor hassles perceived by the body as threats, like paying bills and managing workloads. Take the combination of all of them and your cortisol is flying through the roof!
By finding that balance between exertion and rejuvenation, you will start to become familiar with your body’s needs and how your stress response functions. Amid some of the more uncontrollable elements of your life, it’s important to take control of the things you can.
Ways to combat stress and keep your cortisol levels at bay
- Stick to one caffeinated drink a day (preferably in the morning)
- Get adequate sleep (seven to nine hours, depending on your body’s needs)
- Turn off technology one hour before bed
- Spend less time on social media and on your phone
- Find a balanced exercise routine — a combination of high and low intensity
- Consider taking a magnesium supplement (under the guidance of a practitioner)
- Download a calm meditation or yoga app and practise deep breathing
- Nurture your relationships with people you love
- Eat a well-balanced diet
When you take time to love, understand and nurture your body, you possess the special power to transform into a restorative state of health and wellbeing.
Words SARAH COOPER
Sarah Cooper is a recently graduated public relations and journalism student with a passion for health and wellness. When she isn’t writing, she is teaching Pilates around Sydney or curating recipes for her food blog. Sarah believes in a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and doing things because they make you smile.