Imagine yourself in a deserted forest, when suddenly your eyes witness a threat in the form of a wild lion approaching its steps towards you.
For situations like this, your body is going to prepare itself naturally by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in your brain that would guide the adrenal glands for the production of another chemical called “Cortisol” or commonly referred as “stress hormone.”
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, which is then transported to different parts of the body through the bloodstream. Although almost everybody cell contains cortisol, the function of this hormone may widely vary depending upon the part of the body where a certain function has to be performed.
For example, in some cases, a cell may release cortisol hormone to regulate the blood sugar level, while in another completely different case, cortisol secretion may be used to increase heart rate. Even so, medical scientists have found that in the animal kingdom, some species may produce cortisol during the birth process.
How do Cortisol levels vary throughout the day?
A healthy person, both mentally and physically fit, is able to regulate the level of cortisol in his/her body. However, the amount of this hormone still changes drastically in different time periods in a day.
The cortisol awakening response is the shoot in the level of cortisol when a person wakes up after long hours of sleep which is fifty percent more than the normal level. As the day gradually proceeds, the amount of cortisol present in a body decreases with time eventually hitting the normally required level.
It gets to its lowest when the daylight starts to fade. This pattern of cortisol secretion helps maintain a regular sleep schedule which is essential for leading a healthy lifestyle.
The problems associated with high and low levels of cortisol?
For every chemical that is secreted in the bloodstream, be it be insulin, endorphin, the amount that needs to be present at one point should be balanced as needed. Excess or lower than what is required may result in medical complications that can prove to be harmful. Hence, with reference to cortisol in the blood, there need to be accurate levels present for the smooth functioning of the body.
In some conditions, when cortisol levels exceed the required limit, a condition known as Cushing Syndrome can develop. Patients with Cushing Syndrome may feel their body fat having an uneven composition. There may be a rapid weight gain with most of the fat being deposited in the upper body area including neck, chest and upper back. While the lower regions (legs, arms) remains relatively thinner.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, around 15 million people suffer from Cushing Syndrome every year mainly affecting adults aged between 20 to 25.
For females, a high cortisol level can contribute towards an uneven menstrual cycle and changes in the libido.
An excess presence of cortisol can also affect the mental well being of the person. It can lead to higher stress levels than usual with chances of other psychiatric complications being developed like severe anxiety and depression. People with higher cortisol levels may experience depression phases peaking in the morning. The reason scientist conclude is that cortisol interferes with the excretion of serotonin which is responsible for mood stabilization.
Although low levels of cortisol may rarely occur, it can lead to a medical condition known as primary adrenal insufficiency with symptoms developing in a later age including changes in the skin, muscle loss, and mood instability. Primary Adrenal Sufficiency usually occurs as a result of a damage to the adrenal glands.
Dealing with high cortisol levels
Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” since the amount of stress a person deals with has an important effect on the maintenance of this hormone in the body. Although short-term stress is unlikely to be of any major concern as the level is regulated itself by the body, extended period of a stressful routine can intensify the production of cortisol.
This can be particularly harmful as medical complications like Cushing Syndrome may develop. Besides, that people with high cortisol levels resulting from an increased level of stress may commonly experience severe lack of interest in things, fatigued, insomnia and being drained of physical energy for the most part of the day.
Chronic stress thereby is the major contributor towards a high level of cortisol in the body. To counter this problem, it is pertinent that one takes good care of his/her mental wellbeing by reducing the amount of daily stress. Although, mental illnesses like anxiety and depression should be catered by a professional psychiatrist, fortunately, there are natural ways of managing stress which one can easily make use of. Following are some of the natural ways:
- Meditation: 15 to 30 minutes of everyday mindfulness activity or meditation can not only put one’s stress level at ease but can significantly lower the cortisol amount. Meditation can also be done in the form of daily yoga in the fresh open air that is likely to yield the maximum benefit.
- Acupuncture: This traditional Chinese treatment can heal a lot of bones, joints related pains, headaches and fertility problems that become one important cause of stress among people.
- Breathing Exercise: Recommended by a majority of psychologists and counselors, breathing exercise offers a temporary relief from panic and anxiety phases. Neuropsychologist Dr. Herbert Benson in his book “Relaxation Response” classifies controlled breathing as one way of dealing with stress-related disorders.
One other factor that contributes towards high cortisol level and possibly Cushing Syndrome is the excessive usage of “Corticosteroids” or commonly referred as “steroids”. Corticosteroids are often abused by athletes which propel them to perform better.
Often taken in the form of injections, skin cream or eyedrops this steroid interferes with the natural working of the immune system as well as increasing the level of cortisol in the body. Therefore, it is important that Corticosteroids are taken only when prescribed by a physician and in the required amount.
Change in the diet can also help deal with the high cortisol level. It is often recommended by the nutritionists that a switch to whole food, an anti-inflammatory diet can be one way of curbing higher levels. Anti Inflammatory foods include beetroots, blueberries, bok choy and various other green leafy vegetables.
At the same time, it is also important to avoid a diet that contains a high percentage of trans fats, high sugar, and glycemic content as they are known to disturb the hormonal balance in the body.
Finally, exercising on daily basis and getting a good amount of night sleep is essential in dealing with growing levels of stress.
The Cortisol hormone-like any other hormone in the body has to be kept under the required amount, Though body itself is the best regulator, sometimes owing to daily stressful routine, the levels of this chemical may intensify causing a whole range of medical related problems.
The key to maintaining the right amount of cortisol is not to overexert yourself and manage stress levels as much as possible through natural ways which include controlled breathing and primarily physical exercise.