You might not be able to see it at first, but you can definitely feel it. Cortisol: the stress hormone.
When your body is in a state of emotional or physical distress, cortisol is high. While temporarily high cortisol levels are beneficial (think fight or flight), consistently high levels of cortisol are associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases, including obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Serious mental health conditions are also associated with high levels of cortisol, including anxiety and depression.
When the body is operating in a chronic state of stress, the immune system is on high alert, searching for invading pathogens that may not be there at all. Over time, immune function begins to deteriorate, making you susceptible to seasonal bugs, flus, and other contagious conditions.
Long term cortisol reduction requires trigger identification and management: for many of us, that means managing emotional stressors that arise as a consequence of a frenetic society and overscheduled lives.
Practicing good self-care, including nutrition, weight management, and exercise, can help reduce cortisol and alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, or fatigue that arise when cortisol remains elevated.
If you’re feeling the burden of sky-high cortisol, focus on making these three strategies your go-to self-care regime.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight to Keep Cortisol Levels Low
When cortisol is high, the body reverts to its more primal state, assuming that a famine is nigh. The body becomes resistent to weight loss and more prone to weight gain, directing any additional Calories to be stored around the abdomen.
As fat is stored in the visceral cavity, the body becomes even more prone to weight gain thanks to dysregulation of the hormone insulin.
This sets a vicious cycle in motion: fat secretes inflammatory molecules that keep cortisol high. As the vicious interplay between high fat and high cortisol continues to play out, it becomes even more challenging to reduce cortisol and maintain a healthy weight.
If you struggle with maintaining a healthy weight, act sooner rather than later, as waiting to lose weight can make a challenging undertaking even harder.
Exercise to Keep Cortisol Levels Low
Engaging in a consistent exercise routine is one of the easiest and healthiest means to reduce cortisol.
When cortisol is high, serotonin (the “feel good” chemical in the brain) is often low. This can increase symptoms of stress and depression, making you want to go home, lay on the couch, and queue up a good binge-watching session.
While you may not want to go to the gym, exercise naturally promotes endorphins and reduces cortisol, alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Cardiovascular exercise is particularly beneficial in this area.
If you’re not currently engaged in a regular exercise regime, schedule your gym sessions like you would any other obligation: while the first few sessions may drag, the eventual endorphin boost will become an inherent incentive.
Therapy to Keep Cortisol Levels Low
While speaking to a therapist may seem like a cliche suggestion for stress management, high cortisol is often a consequence of emotional distress. Burying feelings of grief, trauma, anger, resentment, or sadness increase cortisol.
Until mental health becomes a focus of treatment, those struggling with high cortisol will only engage in band aid solutions for a larger problem. Your brain is your most complex organ, so do your best to keep your mind as healthy as your body.
Morgan Medeiros is a certified nutritionist, holding a both a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition. Morgan completed her undergraduate education at Central Washington University, and her graduate education at Northeastern University. During her time as a graduate student, Morgan focused her area of expertise in health education, weight management, and behavioral change. Morgan has experience working in areas of nutritional neuroscience and disease prevention, obesity prevention, and weight loss. Morgan also works in areas of nutritional analysis and menu labeling for restaurants, where she is able to creatively bridge her interest in food culture and health education. In her free time, Morgan enjoys traveling, reading, writing, running, and spending time with her family and friends (including- most importantly- her dog, Clyde).