We are all familiar with the effects of the hormone cortisol, whether we realize it or not.
When you get a shock and experience that hot feeling coursing through your body, that’s cortisol. It’s released by our adrenal glands at times of stress. These glands sit on top of our kidneys and, while small, are vitally important for our survival.
Benefits of cortisol – the stress hormone
Cortisol helps us:
- improve mental focus,
- increase heart rate,
- maintain blood pressure,
- mobilize glucose from body stores and
- prepare the body for action.
Once this crisis passes, our metabolism returns to its calm state. Our body is repaired and our alert systems return to normal.
It is rare, however, that we face major threats. Most of our stress is in the form of family conflict, pressure at work and bad traffic. We face this often, usually several times a day. Despite this being minor compared to an immediate threat to our life, it can have negative and lasting consequences on our health.
Effects of chronic stress
When cortisol continues to be released, its effects persist. This is different from an acute situation where the anti-inflammatory effect is beneficial. If we are required to maintain this suppression for a longer term it reduces the function of our immune system and leads to increased infections.
We know this effect well. How often have you experienced a cold or throat infection after being stressed and run-down for a while? Other signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue due to an overtaxed system include:
- poor sleep
- concentration issues
- low libido
- menstrual cycle disturbance
Understanding how cortisol and the effects of stress make us respond to threats can also help us know how to maintain balance when things go wrong.
The adrenal glands are controlled by higher centres in the brain which detect these threats in our environment and trigger the release of hormones and chemicals from the brain. These then stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and other factors such as adrenaline and DHEA.
Natural ways to balance your cortisol levels
Relaxation techniques, meditation and mindfulness are all recognized ways to reduce stress – they work by reducing the stimulation of these areas of the brain. This slows the release of cortisol and reduces the alert system activation, allowing the body’s normal physiological function to return.
We experience this as a sense of calm and balance. The more stressed we are, the more we need the calming influence of these techniques, a day at the spa or a holiday. Even laughter and music have positive influences on stress biology.
Supplements and food
Sometimes we’re not able to take part in these activities, but there are some natural remedies that can help. These include herbs such as rhodiola rosea and Siberian ginseng or supplements such as 5HTP, magnesium and L-theanine.
In addition to herbal supplements, certain dietary considerations should also be taken into account. Avoiding too much caffeine, alcohol, processed foods and refined carbohydrates and sugar will also help you manage your cortisol levels.
It’s important to recognize stress in our lives and work to reduce it. Stress has been scientifically shown to be an independent risk factor in a number of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.
Now, breathe, take a break and relax.