Claire Hosking N.D.
Specialist Naturopath – Holistic Nutritionist – Herbalist
A common conversation I have with clients is about whether cortisol is a good or a bad thing in their lives. Let’s face it, cortisol gets a bad wrap. The fact is that when it comes to hormones, they are never really good or bad. They are just here to get a job done.
However, when life gets out of balance, that is when we start to find issues with hormones and cortisol is no exception.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, and its effects on the body can be both friend and foe, depending on the context and the level of cortisol present.
Image credit: Erik Holt Photography
BELOW ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF WHERE CORTISOL COULD BE CONSIDERED A FRIEND:
1. Stress response: Cortisol plays a crucial role in the body’s stress response, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. In stressful situations, cortisol levels rise to help the body respond to the immediate threat. This can increase alertness, focus, and energy, which can be helpful in survival situations.
2. Metabolism regulation: Cortisol helps regulate metabolism by controlling blood sugar levels. It ensures that there is enough glucose in the bloodstream for energy when needed, such as during periods of physical activity or stress.
3. Anti-inflammatory effects: Cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties and is often used medically to reduce inflammation in its man-made forms known as cortisone or prednisolone.
4. Immune response: Cortisol plays a role in regulating the immune system, especially in conditions like autoimmune diseases.
BELOW ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF WHERE CORTISOL COULD BE CONSIDERED FOE:
1. Chronic stress: Whilst cortisol is beneficial in short bursts, prolonged stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. This can have detrimental effects on the body, including anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, weight gain, and increased risk of various health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and digestive issues.
2. Suppression of immune system: Whilst cortisol can help regulate the immune system, excessive and prolonged elevation of cortisol levels can suppress the immune response, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
3. Muscle breakdown: High cortisol levels can lead to the breakdown of muscle tissue, which can be problematic for individuals trying to build or maintain muscle mass.
4. Bone health: Long-term high cortisol levels can also negatively impact bone health by reducing bone density, which can increase the risk of osteoporosis.
THINGS WE CAN DO TO HELP REGULATE OUR CORTISOL LEVELS:
Fundamentally your brain and adrenal glands are set up to regulate cortisol on their own.
However, people with chronic stress, certain pathologies, or particular medical prescriptions can have cortisol levels that are higher than usual. As mentioned, prolonged high cortisol levels are not a good thing and so in these cases the following strategies may need to be considered:
- Limit caffeine intake: particularly on an empty stomach. Try not to exceed 2 cups per day and avoid in the evenings.
- Assess stress levels: Is your go-go-go greater than your slow-slow-slow? Are you clear on the things that really stress you? Can you say NO when you truly need to? Do you have strategies to diffuse the impact of your daily stresses? Do you have someone to discuss and share your load with?
- Eat a balanced diet: Protein + Carbohydrate + Favourable fat in the correct ratio using fresh unprocessed ingredients.
- Regular exercise: low- or moderate-impact exercise, (i.e. walking, cycling, paddling and swimming), may be a good option for people with high cortisol levels. The best type and amount of exercise depends on a person’s unique circumstances, so it is advisable to seek advice from your healthcare practitioner.
- Relaxation techniques: These activate the “relaxation response” as opposed to the stress response. And reduces cortisol production. They include…. breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, tai chi and visualisation
- Sleep: Sleep is when you fix things! Poor sleep compromises your recovery and leads to raised cortisol levels. Having a good night’s sleep is one of life’s priorities.
- Take up a hobby: Having a rest from your stress is important. Immersing yourself in a joyful pursuit will lower your cortisol levels. This could include gardening, art & craft, cooking, creative writing or playing a musical instrument.
- Laughing and having fun: reduces cortisol and increases serotonin, which helps regulate mood.
- Building good relationships: Stable, loving relationships with partners, friends, and family can be vital when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, and they can help a person get through stressful periods. If relationships are unhappy and unhealthy, they can cause a great deal of stress. If conflicts happen regularly, it may boost the well-being of everyone involved to try to resolve the cause.
- Getting a pet: can help lower cortisol levels. Pets help us to exercise, provide distraction, give us unconditional love, and make us laugh.
- Quit smoking: stresses your body and reduces sleep quality. Although initially challenging, smoking cessation has a major impact on lowering cortisol levels.
In summary, cortisol is a hormone that plays a vital role in the body’s response to stress and its healthy functioning. In acute stress situations, it is a friend that helps us cope and survive. However, chronic elevation of cortisol due to ongoing stress can be detrimental to physical and mental health, making it a foe in those circumstances.
Balancing cortisol levels and managing stress effectively is essential for maintaining overall well-being.
If any of this information resonates with you, I would love to discuss how Naturopathy can support you further.
In health and happiness,
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2. Pedersen BK. Physical activity and muscle-brain crosstalk. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2019;15(7):383-392. doi:1038/s41574-019-0174-x
3. Jones R, Tarter R, Ross AM. Greenspace interventions, stress, and cortisol: a scoping review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(6):2802. doi:3390/ijerph18062802