Everything you need to know about Cortisol

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that is mostly responsible for stress levels in the body. It is made by the adrenal glands which are located at the top of the kidneys.1 

Cortisol then moves around the body through the bloodstream. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland which are both located in the brain are able to determine if the blood contains the right amount of cortisol.1

If the cortisol levels are determined to be too low, the brain sends signals to adjust the amount of the hormone is being produced by the adrenal glands.1

Most cells of the body contain cortisol receptors which receive and use the hormone as is needed for your body day to day. For example, if your body is under extreme stress, your body may shut down functions such as the digestive system, immune system or reproductive system to protect the vital organs. This can lead to short-term and long-term issues with these particular systems.1

Once your body no longer feels the stress, the cortisol levels return to normal and the body functions that were altered begin to work again. If you suffer from long-term or chronic stress, this can mean your cortisol levels are out of whack for a long period of time.1

What is Cortisol Used for?

Cortisol is used to control inflammation, regulate blood pressure and increase blood sugar, control the sleep/wake cycle, boost energy in times of stress and manage how the body used carbohydrates, fats and proteins.1

If cortisol levels are incorrect, the body can become inflamed, blood pressure can increase, blood sugar can deplete and sleep can be impacted. All of these can put the body under immense pressure and lead to health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.2

How does Cortisol Affect the Gut?

As discussed earlier, when cortisol levels are raised, the digestive system can be shut down to protect vital organs. Although the digestive system is important, it will not have the same impact if it is shut down as shutting down the heart or lungs would have, so it is pretty much first on the list to be impacted.

It is, however, a two-way street; poor gut health can also lead to higher cortisol levels. If your gut is inflamed, more cortisol is produced to fight the inflammation. This puts more pressure on your body and ignites a stress response which can then again lead to more inflammation.3

To reduce inflammation in the gut, you must keep it balanced, which means having more good bacteria than bad. Bad bacteria can lead to inflammation in the gut and around the body, and if there aren’t enough good bacteria, bad bacteria can thrive.

To add more good bacteria to the gut, you can consume probiotics. Probiotics add new strains of live bacteria to the gut, allowing less room for the bad bacteria to wreak havoc. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles, or can be consumed in a supplement.

Ensuring you don’t feed the bad bacteria is crucial, too. Bad bacteria love refined sugar which is found in many sweet treats like cakes, biscuits and chocolate.

How do I Reduce Cortisol levels?

Ensuring you exercise regularly can help the body to cope with stress better. Exercising releases endorphins which have been directly linked to reducing stress. levels4 Even a 10-minute walk per day can help to relieve stress and give you more time to yourself.

Caffeine can increase cortisol levels, so watching your caffeine intake can be useful in ensuring cortisol levels don’t increase. In those sensitive to caffeine, 400mg per day has been linked to anxiety and panic attacks.5

Take breaks from the stresses of life. Whatever it is that’s causing you to feel stress - try and distract your mind with things you enjoy to reduce stress levels.6 Pick up a hobby, write a journal, socialise with friends…whatever works for you is fine!

Final Thoughts

The best way to reduce cortisol levels is to reduce stress levels and find coping mechanisms to allow you to alleviate the stress you are feeling. We can’t always avoid stressful situations in life, but managing stress is crucial to avoiding high cortisol levels.

Remember to look after your gut to maintain good cortisol levels. Check out our article on Ten Lifestyle Habits that Support Your Gut to get educated on gut health!

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