As most of us unfortunately know, modern life tends to cause stress. Stress is a normal response to difficult or anxious situations, and it’s something most of us will experience at some point or another.
However, a stressful lifestyle or an anxiety disorder can lead to experiencing stress far more often than we should. Stress releases a hormone, which in the short term, helps us to deal with dangerous or stressful situations. Too much of this hormone can cause health issues, some of which you might have noticed recently.
How would you know if your cortisol levels are unbalanced? If they are, what can you do? Let’s find out.
What is “The Stress Hormone”?
When our bodies experience stress, a hormone called cortisol is released. The stress hormone was originally meant to help humans in much more dangerous situations. This is where our “fight or flight” response comes from.
Unfortunately, that means that our bodies are flooded with a hormone designed to keep us alive when faced with a hungry wild animal - not during a big presentation at the office!
Higher levels of cortisol cause the body to produce more glucose, as well as blocking insulin production. This means that your blood sugar levels are higher, leading to a suppressed appetite. Higher glucose levels leads to insulin resistance, keeping the brain supplied with glucose. It also helps to reduce inflammation and boosts the metabolism. So, in small doses, cortisol can be healthy.
What Does Cortisol Do To the Body?
So, while cortisol is fine in small doses, too much cortisol can throw your whole body out of balance. High cortisol levels can build up slowly, and some of the symptoms might not even seem out of place at first.
Of course, if you have a stressful lifestyle, this puts you at higher risk for too much cortisol. Anxiety disorders make our bodies feel as if we’re constantly under threat, even if nothing is happening at all. Let’s take a look at some of the symptoms that could indicate you have too much stress hormone in your body.
In the short term, cortisol can suppress the appetite. However, if you have prolonged periods of high cortisol, it will have the opposite effect. Prolonged periods of high cortisol levels change the way our body functions, including rocketing blood sugar levels.
High blood pressure, high sugar levels, insulin resistance, fatigue, and ultimately weight gain are all symptoms of high cortisol levels. The short-term appetite suppressing effect will wear off, leaving you ravenously hungry. Your body will go into emergency mode, storing up as much fat and glucose as possible.
Cortisol weight gain tends to result in the worst type of weight gain: belly fat. While excess fat isn’t necessarily a bad thing, fat around the belly and abdomen can gather around the organs, causing serious health problems.
High cortisol levels (or stress hormone levels) and mental issues can produce a chicken and egg problem. One can cause the other, and they’re often related. Depression and other mental distress issues are complicated and nuanced, and it’s good to fully research how stress affects your brain.
This is because when your body is in emergy mode, producing lots of stress hormones, your brain gets overwhelmed. Other vital hormones, like serotonin, get pushed to one side.
You might know serotonin as the “happy hormone”. While serotonin does influence our mood, it also influences sleep, appetite, and much more.
Simply put, our bodies work on a delicately balanced cocktail of hormones. We need serotonin just like we need cortisol. When one hormone becomes unbalanced, this can wreak havoc on our whole body. Mental distress is one serious symptom that be caused over time, due to too much cortisol.
Lack of Focus, or “Brain Fog”
Low cortisol levels are just as harmful as high levels. If you’ve suffered from a cortisol imbalance for some time, your adrenal glands could weaken. This produces a lower level of cortisol than we need, leaving us feeling tired, unfocused, and unmotivated.
This is called adrenal fatigue, and can be caused by many different factors. Chronic disease, long-term depression, or a stressful lifestyle can all throw your cortisol levels out of balance and lead to adrenal weakening.
Unbalanced cortisol levels can also affect sleep length and quality, which means we’re tired and unfocused the next day. This leads to the dreaded “brain fog”, where you can’t seem to focus on anything, or even speak and function as normal.
While brain fog is almost considered a joke, or a passing comment, the reality is no laughing matter. Regular brain fog can lead to accidents, lack of motivation, and depression. It can lead to poor performance at work, and a disconnection from one’s friends and family.
How to Deal with High Stress Levels
Now we’ve discussed all the problems that can come from a hormone imbalance, let’s deal with the most important part - learning to deal with them!
- Remove causes of stress.
The first thing you should do is to identify and remove causes of your stress. High-powered jobs or a busy lifestyle can cause serious stress. Of course, this isn’t always a possible option.
- Get enough (good quality!) sleep.
Sleep is our body’s way of relaxing and resetting. Take steps to ensure you get a good night’s sleep, like avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or screens before bed.
- Exercise in moderation.
Exercise is fantastic for our health, but you can have too much of a good thing! High intensity exercise with no rest periods can put our bodies under too much stress, sending our cortisol levels spiking.
- Seek treatment for a mental problem or anxiety issue.
If you have an anxiety issue or some other mental problem which is causing you stress, try and seek treatment for the issue. This can help you to address your high cortisol levels at the core. In the meantime, try relaxation techniques, like meditation, yoga, or even simple breathing exercises.
Unbalanced cortisol levels are more common than you might think! The symptoms can be subtle, but may lead to distress and unhappiness. If you suspect you have high cortisol levels, try taking steps to get them back in balance. Assess your lifestyle. What changes can you make?