Though stress is often perceived as a mental phenomenon when our brains race and we feel overwhelmed and filled with worry, it has biological roots. When an individual experiences stress, it is in response to the brain releasing chemicals that trigger “stress hormones” that flow through our body.
The hypothalamus is a small area in the brain that reacts to stressors in our environment. It is responsible for signaling the pituitary gland that then alerts our adrenal glands to begin producing the hormone cortisol. This is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis. All three parts of the human body come together to respond to stress.
As chronic stress is linked to conditions such as hypertension, depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, it is essential to manage the feeling. When a person experiences stress their levels of cortisol begin to rise. Many ask the question of whether or not it is physically possible to reduce the amount of this hormone in their body. And if so, how.
The Role of Cortisol
Cortisol doesn’t only appear in times of stress. The hormone is an everyday necessity to keep our bodies going. Everyone has a resting cortisol level that works with their circadian rhythm. It helps regulate energy, letting our bodies know when it’s time for activity and when it’s time to enter rest mode. We need cortisol, which is a steroid hormone, to function throughout the day.
The roles of cortisol include regulating blood glucose levels, maintaining a proper metabolic rate, reducing inflammation, and aiding memory. It also plays a role in maintaining proper blood pressure, which is why those with chronic stress often have problems with hypertension.
Additionally, pregnant women need cortisol to support healthy fetal development. It’s a hormone that plays many roles throughout the body. But we need to be careful of how high it rises.
Reactive Cortisol Levels
Your reactive cortisol level refers to the amount of the hormone that your brain releases in times of stress. It’s much higher than your resting cortisol level and it sends your body into “panic” mode. When cortisol levels increase you may notice physical effects such as increased heart rate, sweating, or even an increase in energy. You may feel restless, have trouble sleeping, and experience other secondary symptoms of stress.
High cortisol levels can lead to irritability, chronic headaches, decreased sex drive, and stomach problems. It can cause weight gain, erectile dysfunction in men, and disruptions in ovulation for women.
As you can see, when the stress hormone cortisol rises too high for too long, we put our bodies at significant risk. But we live in a world that tends to be high-stress. We’re always connected, finding a work/life balance is challenging, and our schedules never seem to slow down. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 33% of adults in the United States report feelings of extreme chronic stress, while 48% of respondents state that their levels of stress increase as the years go by.
Quick Stats on Stress
If you’re feeling stressed a majority of the time, you’re not alone. The APA found that 75% of survey respondents cite work and money as the main cause of their stress and 50% of Americans state that stress negatively impacts both their personal and professional lives.
31% of adults state that managing a work/life balance is difficult and 35% report that their jobs cut into their personal and family time, causing them stress. 54% of Americans said that their stress levels contribute to arguments with loved ones.
It’s not just the relational disturbances of stress that matter. The same study found that more than three quarters of respondents state they experience the physical symptoms of stress; most within the last month alone. The most commonly cited symptoms include excessive fatigue, feelings of anger and irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and headaches.
Lowering Levels of Cortisol
With so much stress in our daily lives and the repercussions of having high cortisol levels, many wonder what they can do to manage the feeling and protect their health. There are proven ways to lower cortisol levels naturally.
Eating a balanced, healthy diet is one way to help balance cortisol levels. Try to consume as little refined sugar as possible and stick to foods that are high in soluble fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and foods that contain probiotics. Additionally, it’s essential to drink plenty of water.
Avoid Large Amounts of Caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant that gets your body going. It can also negatively impact your sleep cycle. Sleep and stress go hand-in-hand. Poor sleep patterns can increase cortisol levels and lead to feelings of stress, yet stress can also cause problems with sleep. You must try to stick to a healthy sleep schedule and avoid consuming excessive amounts of caffeine or consuming it in the evening.
Play with Animals
It may sound silly, but science proves that individuals who regularly interact with animals have naturally lower levels of cortisol than those who don’t. One study shows that having a dog can help regulate the HPA axis reaction and that pet owners in general have lower levels of the stress hormone in their bodies.
Effectively Manage Levels of Stress
Again, this may sound challenging but the more effectively you manage stress the lower your reactive cortisol levels will be. It’s essential to find healthy coping mechanisms, productive outlets, and hobbies that you enjoy to manage stress.
Tips for managing stress:
- Learn to identify your stressors
- Use positive mantras and practice gratitude
- Use breathing techniques in stressful situations
- Participate in mini meditation sessions
- Make time for fun self-care activities
If Stress Is Getting the Best of You
If you’re experiencing chronic stress that is having an impact on your life, whether it be physically, emotionally, or both, it may be time to step back and evaluate your lifestyle.
Key questions to ask yourself include:
- Do I have a healthy work/life balance?
- Do I need more time for myself?
- Am I finding time to do the things I enjoy?
Addressing those questions is a GR8 place to start, but sometimes we all need a little help. If you begin to experience feelings of depression or generalized anxiety seek help from a professional counselor to develop a plan to reduce your stress levels and keep cortisol levels in-check.