How Are Cortisol and Stress Related?

How Are Cortisol and Stress Related?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Each day, you are faced with stressful situations—and some of them may leave you feeling physically as well as emotionally frazzled. This is because when faced head on with an uncomfortable situation, your body reacts, preparing to protect you from whatever you are facing.

For example, we all know what it's like to feel startled, such as when you hear an unexpected loud noise. You may feel your heart rate increase, but as soon as your mind has confirmed that there's nothing to worry about (it was just a car across the street backfiring), you quickly return to normal.

But sometimes, your body doesn't recognize when the stressful situation is over, which can leave your internal systems working harder than they should—especially your adrenal gland, which produces cortisol, the hormone related to stress response. It's important to maintain already-healthy cortisol levels to support a healthy stress response.

Here's what you need to know about cortisol's role, plus how you can keep stressors at bay—so your adrenal gland and other stress-related systems of the body are balanced and working properly.

What is cortisol?

Stressed man holding his forehead and looking down at his phone

Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone that plays an important role in how your body responds to stress. It is better known as "the stress hormone," but it also plays a critical role in your body's other important systems and processes. Secreted by the adrenal gland, cortisol is involved in supporting already-healthy blood pressure levels, healthy glucose metabolism, immune function and healthy insulin response.

Your body regularly produces some cortisol, even when you're relaxed. But when you're in a stressful or scary situation, it makes it harder to maintain already-healthy cortisol levels as part of the body's natural "fight or flight" reaction—this is when your internal system assesses whether to prepare for you to either stay and face a problem head on, or run to safety.

Of course, we need to be able to run away quickly when a tiger jumps out at us! So, cortisol is important to function normally and respond to stress in a healthy way. The issue is when we produce too much cortisol, even when there is no proverbial tiger chasing us!

What does cortisol do during stress?

Stressed woman sitting in front of her computer and rubbiong her temples

Your cortisol levels are different depending on the time of day. In the morning, your cortisol levels are higher, while at night your levels are at their lowest. This cortisol cycle repeats day after day. Your cortisol levels also fluctuate based on your activity or what you are experiencing at the moment.

Cortisol in small amounts has positive effects—you don't want to have too little of it. Cortisol can give you a quick burst of energy, heightened alertness and even support a healthy immune response. Maintaining already-healthy cortisol levels will help your body stay in balance and maintain homeostasis.

However, when your body experiences stress, it makes it harder to support already-healthy cortisol levels. This can leave you in a constant state of "fight or flight mode."

Can I get a cortisol level test?

Woman sitting with a doctor asking about a cortisol test

A cortisol test can detect whether your adrenal gland is maintaining already-healthy cortisol levels. Getting a test can help detect cortisol levels in your pituitary and adrenal glands. You should speak with your doctor about ordering a cortisol test if you want to check your cortisol levels in your body.

A cortisol test can be administered one of three ways: through blood, saliva or urine; all three measure the levels of cortisol that your body produces.

How do I manage stress?

Woman meditating to help manage stress

Everyone wants to support a healthy stress response, so it is important to be proactive about your mental health. With the right self-care, you can help maintain your already-healthy cortisol levels so they are produced at a normal rate.

Exercise the stress away

If you are feeling stressed, it is time to break a sweat. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day can help support stress management and already-healthy cortisol levels; it releases endorphins—chemicals that help improve mood. Exercise also tires your body out which leads to improved sleep quality, leaving you feeling more energized each morning.

Yoga and already-healthy cortisol levels

While yoga is technically a form of exercise, it is not quite as vigorous as hitting the gym or running. But that doesn't mean it's not a great way to keep your stress levels at bay. Yoga combines gentle stretching with breathing techniques that allow you to get the best of both worlds – a little sweat and relaxation all in one! Gentle stretching allows you to target areas of your body that are tight to help loosen the joints and muscles, leaving you in a state of relaxation once you get off your mat.

Each pose is coupled with targeted breathing, which forces you to focus on your posture instead of whatever stressor may be racing through your mind. Ultimately, having a dedicated yoga practice daily for at least 15-20 minutes will help promote stress management and maintain already-healthy cortisol levels.

Meditation and mindfulness—for a relaxed state of mind

Feeling frazzled? More than likely you are replaying situations in your head over which you have very little control. Instead of ruminating, turn your mind off. Tune into the present moment instead—this will (finally) shut off that reel of things playing in your head!

Try relaxing breathing exercises coupled with meditation and focus on your breath going in and out of your body so you can stop thinking about stressors. Deep breathing helps slow your heart rate down and allows you to feel more at peace. The calmness you need to get through your day is possible with the right state of mind!

Stressed? Therapy can help!

There likely is a very good reason why you're stressed. It could be a hectic job, financial woes, complicated relationships, or maybe you've got a history of negative thought patterns that has been holding you back for years.

A healthy lifestyle can only go so far if the root of your issues isn't addressed. Get to the bottom of it by working one-on-one with a therapist, counselor, or psychologist. Your primary care doctor can connect you with resources.

Nutrients that support healthy stress levels

Woman drinking green tea to de-stress

Your diet plays an important role in your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Look for essential nutrients that help support a healthy mood, stress management, and already-healthy cortisol levels.

These nutrients include:

  • Ashwagandha: This Ayurvedic herb has been used for centuries to help support stress management, maintain already-healthy cortisol levels and promote mental health.

  • Green tea: You may be thinking of dainty little porcelain cups, but a green tea supplement contains powerful antioxidant support. Green tea helps maintain optimal serotonin levels, which are key to supporting already-normal cortisol levels.

  • Valerian: Valerian is a root that helps your GABA receptors to support a healthy stress response—offering you that much-needed good night's rest. This herb also helps support a healthy weight. Getting a proper night's sleep will help balance your cortisol levels and regulate secretion levels throughout the day.

  • Lemon balm: Give your body a little love with lemon balm. Available as a supplement or essential oil, lemon balm contains properties that provide an overall sense of calm and support nervous system health.

No one wants to deal with the emotional and physical implications of occasional stress. Fortunately, with a healthy lifestyle and a smart nutritional strategy, you can be on your way to shaking off those stressors…for good!

 

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