What’s the Deal With Cortisol and When is it a Problem?

What is cortisol?

Cortisol plays a crucial role in our body’s method of handling stress. Cortisol is a type of glucocorticoid, which is a more general category of steroid hormones involved in the homeostasis of protein and glucose. In other words, cortisol manages the production and breakdown of our body’s fuel sources.

For instance, if our body is running low on energy, cortisol helps to breakdown large carbohydrate polymers into individual glucose monomers. These glucose monomers are essentially blocks of energy that our body can use to refuel itself [1].

Maintained at certain levels, cortisol is beneficial and essential because it helps keep our bodies energized. Too much, or too little of this hormone, however, can be very harmful.

How can cortisol be harmful?

Too much cortisol is released into the body during long-term stress responses, in other words, when an individual faces chronic stress [2]. Chronic stress can do more harm than short-term stressors because the body feels the need to break down more energy stores. These processes happen for an extended period of time, which can dysregulate normal biological systems [3].  

  1. Muscle breakdown: Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning that it can break down proteins and fats to use their building blocks as energy [2]. Subsequent muscle loss prevents athletes from improving their performance.
  2. Increased blood pressure [2]: Hypertension can lead to a myriad of negative health effects, but more specifically, studies have shown that elevated blood pressure can lead to diminished athletic capacities [4]. 
  3. Suppressed immune system [2]: Without a properly working immune system, individuals become more susceptible to infection, which can thereby undermine their training and their ability to perform at optimal levels. 

So, how can I reduce chronic stress?

  1. Move your body everyday! Studies show that physical activity is associated with better mood and decreased subjective stress. Although many athletes train rigorously and often, research has demonstrated that even low activity levels are correlated with decreased stress levels [5].  
  2. Fuel your body appropriately! Nutrition can affect your physical health and mood, both of which influence your stress levels. In one study, individuals with diets that consisted of more sugary and saturated fat foods more frequently exhibited higher stress levels [6]. Thus, be sure to vary your diet to include natural, whole foods so that you are getting the appropriate macro and micronutrients.
  3. Sleep more! Consistent, adequate sleep is essential for all biological systems within the human body, and it can greatly influence one’s stress levels. Research indicates that individuals who sleep less than five hours a night actually perceive more stress [7]. 

How can I start alleviating chronic stress today?

Though the mentioned three points seem big and broad, you can easily start implementing them into your daily routine by scheduling 10 minutes out of your day to… 

  • Do yoga! Yoga is a great way to combine both physical activity and mindfulness. In fact, studies have shown that yoga is effective in reducing blood pressure [8]. 
  • Meditate! Although various forms exist, research consistently demonstrates how proper breathing exercises and movement exercises through meditation decreases stress, anxiety, blood pressure and cortisol levels [9]. 
  • Drink less! Alcohol leads to many different negative side effects, but in relation to cortisol, studies show that individuals who drink more alcohol exhibit increased levels of the stress hormone [10].
  • Eat salmon! This fish can be prepared in various manners and provides a multitude of health benefits because it is a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Increased amounts of this anti-inflammatory nutrient are associated with lower cortisol levels [11].

How can I find out if my Cortisol levels are elevated or not?

Get blood tested! To get your blood tested to know your Cortisol levels, we have partnered with InsideTracker to provide our audience 25% off any and all testing done through InsideTracker when you book via the link below and use the code “NUTRITONALREV”.⁠

References:

  1. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; February 9, 2021.
  2. Lee DY, Kim E, Choi MH. Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress. BMB Rep. 2015;48(4):209-216. doi:10.5483/bmbrep.2015.48.4.275
  3. McEwen BS. Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. Eur J Pharmacol. 2008;583(2-3):174-185. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2007.11.071
  4. Mazic S, Suzic Lazic J, Dekleva M, et al. The impact of elevated blood pressure on exercise capacity in elite athletes. Int J Cardiol. 2015;180:171-177. doi:10.1016/j.ijcard.2014.11.125
  5. Schultchen D, Reichenberger J, Mittl T, et al. Bidirectional relationship of stress and affect with physical activity and healthy eating. Br J Health Psychol. 2019;24(2):315-333. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12355
  6. Laugero KD, Falcon LM, Tucker KL. Relationship between perceived stress and dietary and activity patterns in older adults participating in the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study. Appetite. 2011;56(1):194-204. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2010.11.001
  7. Choi DW, Chun SY, Lee SA, Han KT, Park EC. Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(4):796. Published 2018 Apr 19. doi:10.3390/ijerph15040796
  8. Hagins M, States R, Selfe T, Innes K. Effectiveness of yoga for hypertension: systematic review and meta-analysis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:649836. doi:10.1155/2013/649836
  9. Sharma H. Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu. 2015;36(3):233-237. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.182756
  10. Badrick E, Bobak M, Britton A, Kirschbaum C, Marmot M, Kumari M. The relationship between alcohol consumption and cortisol secretion in an aging cohort. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008;93(3):750-757. doi:10.1210/jc.2007-0737
  11. Thesing CS, Bot M, Milaneschi Y, Giltay EJ, Penninx BWJH. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and dysregulations in biological stress systems. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018;97:206-215. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.07.002
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