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Cortisol...the ups and downs and what they mean to you!

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

I have found myself faced with a lot of questions around cortisol as of late so I thought I would share a bit of that with you to clear up any questions that may be out there around this amazingly complex and misunderstood hormone that you probably know best as the driver of your “fight or flight” response.


First it is a steroid hormone, made in the adrenals and released into the blood. It is mainly controlled by 3 inter-communication regions of the body that when combined form the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis for short.


Cortisol has many important and essential functions in the body like; managing how your body uses carbs, fats and protein, controls your sleep/wake cycle, acts on blood sugar levels thus regulating metabolism, influences memory, acts as an anti-inflammatory, can influence blood pressure, aid in salt and water balance, and even helps in the development of the fetus.


A deeper look into how cortisol works in relation to mood found that it affects the regulation of neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine, glutamate), which affect aspects of human behavior, like mood, learning, arousal, and temperament (Erikson et al., 2003).


It is typically elevated in the mornings and declines throughout the day in what is called a diurnal rhythm. Cortisol is released appropriately during the day in response to stress but should return to an appropriate level once the stress has passed.


When levels stay elevated due to constant or chronic stress we tend to start to see more issues in the body as a result. These can range and vary from person to person in severity, like anything that goes out of balance.


Some of the results of elevated cortisol are: Increased weight, low moods associated with depression, reduced sex drive, decreased immune function, increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, and can affect memory and learning.


So what can we do to help prevent the bad effects of cortisol and promote the better ones I mentioned above? Well starting with the basics that help promote better health all around:


- Walk more, don’t run as running may increase cortisol due to the stress response, this is of course unique to each person.

- Exercise in general, it reduces the body’s levels of stress hormones like adrenaline & cortisol, while stimulating production of feeling good chemicals like endorphins, which are the body’s natural mood boosters and pain killers.

- Eat whole foods, avoid processed and sugar, and drink lots of water as dehydration stresses the body.

- Try to manage your stress with mild to moderate exercise, meditation, stretching, socializing, or even just getting outside more.

- Get proper sleep, 7-8 hour nightly to give your body a chance to recover each night, sleep is so important to all of the body's functions.

- Avoid caffeine late in the day and eating before bed.

- Include some tasty foods in your diet more often; like dark chocolate 70%, bananas and pears, green tea, probiotics in foods like yogurt, fish oils or salmon for the boost in omega 3’s (great brain/mood food).


Keeping your body in balance can be a challenge but in my experience it can be like riding a bike, in that once you learn how, you’ll never forget but may need to adjust now and then. So in the spirit of metaphors for this last paragraph, treat your body like a car you love...keep it well fueled, oiled, clean inside and out, and do regular maintenance to prevent breakdowns.


Now go forth and love the body you have, to create the body that loves you back, and enjoy!

*Please note cortisol levels must be tested by your GP and cannot be self assessed. While levels between 10-20 mcg are consider "normal" your GP will determine where your levels are in relation to you*

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