What is Cortisol? How High Stress Hormone Levels Wreck Havoc On Your Mental & Physical Health

What is Cortisol? How High Stress Hormone Levels Wreck Havoc On Your Mental & Physical Health
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a close up of a person: What Is Cortisol? How 'Fight Or Flight' Response Stress Hormones Affect Your Body & Mental Health

Stress is a feeling most everyone experiences from time to time.

In order to cope with these moments, days, months, years when they occur, the body responds by releasing a hormone called cortisol.

But when the body's fight-or-flight response, also called the acute stress response, kicks into over-drive, cortisol levels rise, causing powerful effects on both your body and, potentially, your mental health.

What is cortisol and what does it do?

According to the definition offered by the Hormone Health Network, "Cortisol is often called the 'stress hormone' because of its connection to the stress response, however, cortisol is much more than just a hormone released during stress ..."

"Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones and is made in the adrenal glands ... Because most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, it affects many different functions in the body. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being."

Put more simply, it's what gives us the surge for getting through short-term or long-term, even chronic stress.

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Cortisol levels rise and fall along with what we think, believe, feel, and do in the course of our daily lives.

How high or low your stress level (and therefore your cortisol as well) is at any given time determines how you'll react to perceived threats and stressors as they arise.

Will you reply to a Facebook thread by delivering a humanitarian message, or by posting an angry rant? Will you lay in bed all day feeling down, or head out to stand squashed at a concert with a thousand others singing at the top of their lungs?

Extreme emotions and situations raise your body's cortisol levels.

As your stress barometer goes up, up, up, so does the amount of cortisol surging through you.

Researchers behind the longest running study on the impacts of emotional health on physical well being, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, have found that stress has significant biological, biochemical, mental, and emotional effects on all of us, regardless of age.

According to Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School:

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old ... It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

How does cortisol function relate?

As explained by the folks at TED, "The Harvard researchers found the subjects who dealt with stress by engaging in adaptive methods had better relationships with other people. And their way of coping had a cascade of beneficial effects: It made them easier for others to be with, which made people want to help them and led to more social support, and that, in turn, predicted healthier aging in their 60s and 70s. Added bonus: people who used adaptive mechanisms in middle age also had brains that stayed sharper longer."

RELATED: The Scary Truth About What Happens To Your Body When You're Stressed

If you suffer from chronic stress, your cortisol levels can become too high and stay that way too long. Over an extended period of time, elevated levels of cortisol have negative effects on the body, including, but not limited to, weight gain, sleep problems, and an increased risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

How can you lower your cortisol levels?

Essentially, by learning how to cope with physical, mental and emotional stress more effectively. Once you do, there are many gifts to be gained from maintaining well-balanced hormone levels in your body.

As mentioned above, almost all cells in the human body have cortisol receptors; meaning cortisol affects countless body functions. So well-balanced cortisol can keep those functions humming smoothly. But because both positive and negative forms of stress cause cortisol to rise almost on the spot, these gifts are easily gutted.

Stay attuned to any unusual or not easily explained changes that could be symptoms of high cortisol levels, such as sleep disruption, unusual weight gain or loss or sudden mood changes.

Over the long-term, unreasonably high levels cortisol can even reduce the overall size of your brain, as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for memory and learning, shrinks. Yikes!

Luckily, research shows we can change and improve brain health if we start early and continue working at it over time, so take steps to start changing your stress pattern now!

Here are 9 stress reduction tips to follow in order to lower your cortisol levels and improve your overall mental and physical health.

1. Maintain healthy relationships

This includes, and should even start with, the relationship you have with yourself.

Are there issues you’ve hidden way or keep stepping over? Find a coach or therapist who can hear your feelings and give you strategies for change you’ll actually use. Your relationships with family, friends, co-workers and romantic interests all need to be viewed with open eyes and a willingness to say goodbyes where doing so is best for your wellbeing.

2. Get an accurate picture of your current health

Bodies in stressed-out condition scream for more Vitamins B, C and magnesium. Get a complete physical and discuss the results, your daily routine and a stress reduction plan with your doctor, including their recommendations for an optimal exercise plan.

3. Meditate and try some relaxing breathing and mindfulness exercises

Start each day with even as little as 10 to 15 minutes of guided or self-guided meditation. Consider going outside somewhere as close as your yard or as far as a peaceful mountain trail.

If you check in with your breathing throughout the day, you're likely to find it centered up in your chest or throat. Work on moving it down slowly.

4. Schedule a massage

Physical touch can be a welcoming, soothing and muscle-relaxing break in a busy week that is none of those things.

5. Get adequate rest

Getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night is essential. Unfortunately, an already high cortisol level can make this difficult.

Ask your doctor about natural ways to induce or regulate sleep until your levels get back to a place where your body will go to sleep naturally. Some forms of healthy melatonin or “sleepy” herbal teas are available without a prescription.

6. Have fun!

Use your humor. Watch your favorite stand-up comedian live or on Comedy Central. Search for silly videos on YouTube. Get up and dance to your favorite music.

RELATED: What Happens To Your Body When You Ignore Stress For Too Long

7. Shake your sugar habit

That same advice to eat a healthy, balanced diet applies here as it does everywhere else. Remember that alcohol is also sugar, so bring your consumption way, way down.

While we’re at it, do the same with coffee or anything else with caffeine. Where there’s chocolate (sugar), there’s caffeine, except the dark, no-sugar-added variety.

8. Pet a pet

Our well-being is quickly enhanced when we stroke our furry friends. Our brain releases those feel-good chemicals, including dopamine, oxytocin and norepinephrine.

9. Find something that gives you a sense of purpose

People who feel some sense of our role in the world — be it for the next month, year, or lifetime — have access to daily happiness. This can be in the form of thoughts or actions each day. Acts of kindness, whether we offer them through humanity, Mother Nature, religion, or another spiritual focus, maintains lower cortisol levels and reduces anxiety and depression.

RELATED: How I Moved Past Shame By Understanding My Fight-Or-Flight Response

Paula-Jo Husack is a counselor, coach, and EMDR certified marriage and family therapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and online. She has 20-plus years experience helping clients with addiction/recovery, couplehood, parenting ...the full range of issues life brings.

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