Author: Kate Higham
Life today is riddled with demands and deadlines.
The 9-to-5 job, the parent-teacher meetings, the endless bills, and the juggling of social commitments. It's no wonder that the World Health Organization branded stress as the 'health epidemic of the 21st century' (1).
When we talk about stress, we're talking about more than just a feeling. We're describing a physiological response that can impact every system in our body.
And at the heart of this response? The hormone cortisol.
When functioning correctly, cortisol is our ally. It wakes us up, keeps our energy steady, and has an anti-inflammatory effect. But, like anything, too much can be problematic. Let's dive into understanding this powerful hormone and its effects on our stress levels.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands above each of our kidneys. Cortisol levels fluctuate normally throughout the day but are generally higher in the morning when we wake and then fall throughout the day. For people who work at night, this pattern is reversed. (2)
This hormone plays a crucial role in various functions in our body, including:
- Metabolism regulation: It helps our cells access the fuel they need to keep us moving. Think of cortisol as the fuel gauge in your car, ensuring there’s just enough gas for your journey.
- Inflammation control: Cortisol acts as our body's internal firefighter, reducing inflammation
- Sleep cycle management: Have you ever wondered what nudges you awake each morning? That's cortisol doing its job, ensuring you rise and shine to face the day.
- Blood sugar balance: Our brains love sugar (glucose). Cortisol ensures that sugar levels in our blood are balanced - crucial for brain function, mood, and energy.
Though cortisol wears many hats, it's most renowned for its role in the stress response.
The Cortisol-Stress Connection
Have you ever felt your heart race when you're nervous or scared?
That's your body's 'fight or flight' mechanism in action, and cortisol plays a leading role. This hormonal surge gives us a sudden energy boost, heightens memory functions, and fortifies our immunity, prepping us to tackle the day’s challenges head-on or sidestep them.
But this ancient system, designed to protect us from short-term threats like wild animals, doesn't fare well in our modern world of persistent stress. When stress becomes chronic, this can wreak havoc on our health, impacting our sleep, immune system, and even our concentration levels. (3)
However, whilst stress- both physical and psychological causes a temporary increase in cortisol levels, most conditions relating to persistently high cortisol arise from the long-term use of certain medications or as a result of certain medical conditions. Talk to a healthcare provider if you are experiencing any symptoms or if you have any concerns.
Practical Tips for Managing Stress
Managing our stress levels is essential for both our physical and mental well-being. Here are some practical everyday strategies to explore:
Mindfulness isn't just trendy; it's backed by science. When we are mindfully engaged—whether savoring a meal, taking a mindful walk, or simply breathing deeply for a few moments—we shift our focus from a state of doing to a state of being. This transition interrupts the perpetual stress loop and offers our mind and body a much-needed reprieve.
Engaging in regular physical activity is known to reduce cortisol levels. Encourage family activities involving movement, such as biking, hiking, or sports. Children and adolescents should aim for at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity (4), and adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week (5).
Nourish to flourish
A well-balanced diet is an important part of staying healthy. Prioritize whole foods and stay hydrated. This can include having a varied diet- some things that can be good to incorporate into your diet include
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (found in fish like salmon)
- Vitamin C (found in citrus fruits)
- Magnesium (found in nuts and spinach)
- B Vitamins (like B6, B12)
- Probiotics (in yogurts, fermented foods)
Our sleep is our reset button. According to the National Sleep Foundation, children aged 6 to 13 require 9 to 11 hours of sleep, while adults should aim for 7 to 9 hours (6). Sleep isn't just about quantity but quality, too. For quality sleep, establishing a regular sleep routine is vital. Dim the lights, put away the gadgets, and let your body rejuvenate.
Talk, share, laugh, cry. Human connections, whether friends, family, or professionals, can provide the emotional buffer we all need. Why? Humans are inherently social beings; our biology is wired to thrive on interactions and bonds. When we connect with others—whether it's sharing our concerns with a close friend, participating in a group activity, talking to a professional, or simply engaging in a heartfelt conversation—our body releases oxytocin, often called the "love hormone" or "bonding hormone." This powerful neurotransmitter counteracts the effects of cortisol, promoting feelings of safety, trust, and calmness.
Seeking energy from an extra cup of coffee during the day or winding down by scrolling through the phone before sleep are everyday rituals for many. However, both practices can inadvertently interfere with the body's internal rhythms. Caffeine, a stimulant found in coffee, has been found to significantly disrupt sleep when consumed close to bedtime. (7) Likewise, the blue light emitted by phones and other devices suppresses melatonin production, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. (8) By moderating caffeine intake, especially in the latter part of the day, and unplugging from tech at least 1 hour before bedtime, you allow your body to transition to a state of rest naturally.
LetsGetChecked's Cortisol Testing
Understanding your cortisol levels can be the first step toward managing them. If you're curious about your cortisol levels, LetsGetChecked provides an accessible solution: cortisol testing.
This kit enables you to collect your sample from the comfort of home and learn about your cortisol levels at a point in time. It’s important to note that cortisol levels vary throughout the day and that this kit cannot provide a diagnosis.
You should consider taking a cortisol test if you are interested in learning more about your cortisol levels at a point in time.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): Stress: Prevalence and correlates among residents of a suburban area. Online. ncbi.gov
- Society for Endocrinology. Cortisol. Online. https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): Impact of Chronic Stress on Attention Control: Evidence from Behavioral and Event-Related Potential Analyses. Online. Ncbi.gov
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity Guidelines. Online. Cdc.gov
- World Health Organization (WHO): Physical Activity. Online. Who.int
- The National Sleep Foundation: How much sleep do you really need? Online. Thensf.org
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed.Online. ncbi.gov
- The National Sleep Foundation: How Blue Light Affects Sleep.Online. Tthensf.org