Understanding Cortisol

In light of Mental Health Awareness Day, we’re opening up the conversation around cortisol. Cortisol is fairly well understood as being the stress hormone, it gets secreted when we’re in times of stress in as a key component of the fight or flight mechanism. However, the long term implications of cortisol (both high and low) aren’t spoken about quite as much.

Whilst throughout this article you’ll read about the negative impacts of too much cortisol, it is also important to be aware that cortisol is actually crucial for our wellbeing and without it we’d struggle to get up and go in the morning. It’s also vital for our survival mechanism!

Naturally we secrete cortisol in the morning and it should decrease slowly throughout the day. As we’re living in a more stressed society than ever before, often cortisol doesn’t always follow this pattern. We’re secreting cortisol in times of chronic and acute stress, which many people are facing on a daily basis. Needless to say that the pandemic has intensified many people’s levels of stress. When cortisol levels are high it can play havoc on our appetite, sleep and our ability to lose abdominal fat mass to name just a few of its influences. Let me explain:

Appetite- High levels of cortisol can have two different effects on people’s appetite. Some people may experience an increase in appetite as highly palatable foods can dampen down the secretion of cortisol. Consequently, when you’re stressed you may be more likely to reach for higher sugar, higher fat foods rather than some vegetable sticks and hummus. Whilst you’re consuming these foods cortisol secretion is slowed which means you feel less stressed. As a result, your body is more likely to overeat in order to maintain lower levels of stress.

Additionally, some individuals may avoid food when cortisol levels are high. This can be explained, as the fight or flight mode kicks in, sugars are released from the cells into the blood and therefore the body sees no requirement for food since it’s being provided with energy to deal with the stressor.

Sleep - High levels of cortisol can leave you feeling tired but wired. If you’ve ever hit the pillow feeling absolutely exhausted yet your still feeling jittery and tense then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Constant secretion of cortisol can overwork the adrenal glands and can contribute to this feeling of exhaustion despite not being able to sleep.

Weight loss- The picture of working out really hard and eating a structured diet whilst struggling to lose weight is not an uncommon one. In cases where cortisol levels are high, individuals may find it more challenging to lose weight. Cortisol receptors are located around the abdomen, when cortisol levels are high these receptors can impair our ability to lose abdominal fat mass.

Evidently high levels of cortisol are not desirable but how can you know if your levels are high. In order to truly know where your cortisol levels are you would need to do a Saliva test to measure your levels. However, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms which include: weight gain, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, anxiety and digestive problems to name just a few.

Should you suspect that your cortisol levels may be high I would recommend looking at some common habits which can contribute to increased cortisol levels.

  1. Chronic stress – this one may seem fairly obvious and of course in times of stress it’s much easier to say stress less. However, tools such as mindfulness and yoga can be a great way to try to reduce some of the cortisol in your body. Where possible set aside just 5 minutes per day for some mindfulness or meditation.
  2. High caffeine consumption (more than around 4 cups per day) - caffeine increases cortisol and so if you are concerned you may wish to opt for decaf options or herbal teas. Do be aware dark chocolate, green tea, some painkillers, kombucha and some pre-workout also contain caffeine.
  3. Excess HIIT – If you are concerned about excess cortisol then try limiting your HIIT training to 1-2 times per week and focus on lower intensity workouts such as pilates, yoga and strength training.
  4. Some medications – medications are of course necessary but do, do your research and if you are concerned about the impact of your meds on cortisol then it may be best to cut back in other areas such as HIIT training and caffeine consumption.
  5. High levels of oestrogen – high levels of oestrogen can be associated with increased cortisol levels too. Do be aware if you’re taking hormonal contraception.

If you’re struggling with high cortisol please do seek personalised advice!