Health

Too much cortisol? How to overcome heightened stress levels

Take control of your wellbeing with these expert tips.
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One buzzword we’ve been hearing a lot about lately is cortisol. After all, it’s a hormone often associated with stress – something that there’s no shortage of in 2023.

Cortisol isn’t bad, in fact we need it to survive. However, there is evidence that an oversupply can lead to a host of issues such as weight gain, acne, low energy, insomnia, poor concentration, high blood pressure and irritability.

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You need cortisol to function, but just not too much,” natural health and wellness expert Nat Kringoudis explains.

“Too much cortisol elevated over a long period of time can have a hefty impact on daily life.”

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There’s a balance. (Credit: Getty)

The science

Cortisol is produced by our adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. Like adrenaline, it’s released when we’re stressed or in danger, but it’s slower acting and stays in the body for longer.

“Unlike the stress hormone adrenaline, which may spike in times of danger or shock, cortisol runs along in the background trying to keep things level,” Kringoudis says.

“It’s essential for many other functions like metabolism, regulating inflammation, blood pressure, as well as your wake and sleep times. It’s also an essential ingredient in the making of other sex hormones.”

How to manage it

While elevated stress hormones may be useful in a real emergency, our modern brains can’t tell the difference between actual dangers (say, being chased into a cave by a bear) and everyday stress. Between work, home and life in general, these triggers can seem never-ending.

“When we experience elevated cortisol over a lengthened period of time, its flow-on effect can impact nearly every organ system in your body, including the nervous, immune, reproductive systems and more,” Kringoudis says. 

“When we have high cortisol levels we can feel anxious yet fatigued, and it can also impact blood pressure and digestive health, to name a few.”

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How to manage it

If stress is affecting your wellbeing, the first step is to lower it.

“Most of us aren’t actually aware, or stop to acknowledge, that we are indeed stressed,” Kringoudis says.

“Being overwhelmed and running on adrenaline has become normal, so firstly stopping to acknowledge stress is essential to break the cycle.”

Small lifestyle changes may also help.

“Adjusting to a low-inflammatory diet including plenty of omega-3 fatty acids (such as avocado, flaxseed and olive oil), introducing supplements specifically for adrenal support and magnesium, reducing caffeine and introducing mindfulness can all have a positive impact on regulating and lowering cortisol,” she adds.

In rare cases, cortisol over or under production is linked to medical conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome or Addison’s disease. Your doctor can check your cortisol with a blood test and discuss any health issues that may concern you. 

Exercise 

Weight gain (especially around the middle) is a common sign of cortisol over-production. So if you’re trying to ditch those extra inches, it may sound ironic that over-exercising can raise your cortisol higher.

For most people, regular gym visits are unlikely to be a problem and may actually help to manage stress. However, if you’re already wired (and workouts are making you feel worse), Kringoudis says it may be time to go a little easier.

“Consider eating soon after movement and keep exercise to a short window (say 20 minutes),” she suggests.

“It’s important to move your body daily, but for those with elevated cortisol, short bursts are perfect.”

Self-kindness

Often we can be our own worst critics, so it’s important to take unnecessary pressure off yourself.

“We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re not stressed or wired, we will be less successful in obtaining the outcomes we desire. Stress and high cortisol aren’t necessary to be successful – success comes from consistency,” Kringoudis says.

“Being aware of how often you’re actually feeling overwhelmed or stressed can be the best place to start. It’s remarkable how often we’re in autopilot and find ourselves choosing stress without realising it. Once we become conscious, we can choose to look at the current moment and assess if stress is actually warranted, and make better overall health choices.”

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