From our immune system to libido to weight gain to headaches, stress has a heavy hand on our mental health and well-being. The reason why? Cortisol is the stress hormone that our adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys, release naturally when we’re stressed, and it has some unexpected effects, especially for those suffering from chronic stress. Cortisol is just one of many important hormones that helps our bodies regulate stress responses continuously over the course of our whole lives. Think of our cortisol levels as an extension of our stress levels. With that logic, managing cortisol levels = stress management.
Cortisol and stress are hot topics — for good reason. Lots of us are hungry to learn how Covid-19 related stress (among other stressful situations) is affecting our health. One important way to understand our body’s relationship with stress is by understanding the connection between our brain and our adrenal glands and cortisol, one of our key stress hormones.
What leads to a cortisol spike?
In one word: stress.
Cortisol levels are lowest when we’re in deep sleep and peak during stressful moments. Many cortisol spikes over time increase fat storage, brain fogginess, mental restlessness, and agitation. Not that much fun. Beyond chronic stress, there are other reasons, like specific medications and thyroid imbalances, that can lead to cortisol spikes as well.
What do high cortisol levels feel like?
When stressed, our heart rate, cortisol, and energy levels spike to prepare our body to react to the stressor. The problem is, most modern day stressors don’t necessitate a high-energy reaction like that required when escaping a lion or saber toothed tiger. Jumping into high-gear when it is not needed isn’t an efficient or effective response to reach our goals, and in fact, it kicks off a vicious cycle — high cortisol levels lead to sleeplessness, and sleeplessness increases cortisol levels. Oof.
Beyond helping us respond to stress, cortisol regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin and modulates inflammation — it’s a crucial hormone for our health and survival. Cortisol is not all bad, we just need to learn what to do with it. There’s another reason for high cortisol levels: Cushing syndrome. Cushing syndrome occurs when our body is exposed to high levels of cortisol for a long time, an excess of cortisol secretion — leading to a lot of health problems like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Cushing’s syndrome should be treated through professional medical care.
How do I know if I have high cortisol levels?
High levels of cortisol can cause weight gain, fatigue, decreased immune function, acne, thinning hair, bruising, low libido, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and increases the risk of heart disease, focus issues, and sleep issues. That’s a really downer list of effects (sorry). Keep reading, we promise it gets better.
Why does chronic stress affect me like this?
Chronic stress strains the whole body by over-activating our sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response), releasing stress hormones like cortisol, making our breathing shallow and fast, sends our heart rates up, and decreases our heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a metric that indicates our resilience to stress and general well being. In a nutshell: high HRV means we are well-recovered and ready to tackle whatever comes our way, while low HRV is an indicator that our body is not recovered and that we are less likely to perform at our best and more likely to make mistakes.
When the fight-or-flight response is frequently activated as a result of chronic stress, it is physiologically harder to focus, meditate, relax, or sleep because our body and mind are both signaling to each other that we are under threat and need to be escaping danger, not taking a nap or concentrating on our work. This excess of activity in our fight-or-flight response has real consequences for our wellbeing and our long-term health.
To learn how to manage your cortisol levels, look out for part two of the Apollo Neuro Guide to cortisol stress series.