Cortisol: The stress hormone

Sometimes the body has trouble getting cortisol levels back down after a stressful event. This can lead to chronic stress which can have several health consequences. Some simple tools can help bring cortisol levels back down.

Cortisol is an important hormone in the body. It is secreted by the adrenal glands and is usually present in the body at higher levels in the morning and at the lowest at night. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed the “stress hormone” because it is released in higher levels during the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. It is also responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.

Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects including the following.

  • A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
  • Heightened memory functions
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Lower sensitivity to pain
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body

While cortisol is an important part of the body’s response to stress, it is important that the body’s relaxation response is activated so it can return to normal after a stressful event. Unfortunately the body’s stress response is activated so often in our hectic culture that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal. This can result in a state of chronic stress. Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream have been shown to have negative effects such as:

  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body
  • Slowed wound healing

Another impact of chronic stress is increased abdominal fat. Cortisol increases actually cause cravings for carbohydrates which can lead to consuming unnecessary calories. Health problems associated with increased stomach fat include heart attacks, strokes, and the development of metabolic syndrome, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL).

To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight-or-flight response occurs. You can actually learn to relax your body with a few stress management techniques. You can also make lifestyle changes to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. Many people find the following strategies helpful in relaxing the body and mind, aiding the body in maintaining healthy cortisol levels:

  • Guided Imagery
  • Journaling
  • Self-Hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Listening to calming music
  • Breathing exercises
  •  Meditation

Cortisol secretion varies among individuals. People are biologically wired to react differently to stress. One person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. If you’re more sensitive to stress, it’s especially important for you to learn stress management techniques and maintain a low-stress lifestyle. MSU Extension team delivers RELAX Alternative to Anger classes around the state of Michigan. Visit the events listing at MSUE to find classes or to contact your local MSUE office.

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