I think we’d all agree that stress is public enemy number one. And no matter how many journal entries we write, cold plunges we dive into, or meditations we log, that all-too-familiar “flight or fight” mode inevitably kicks in, thanks to trying to balance it all: deadlines, relationships, family obligations, life in general–you know the story.
Our bodies need the stress hormone cortisol to survive, and some amount is necessary and healthy: cortisol levels naturally rise upon waking up or working out, for example. However, chronic cortisol–AKA elevated levels over an extended period of time–can keep our bodies stuck in a perpetual state of stress and wreak havoc on both our mental and physical health, leading to increased health risks like depression and anxiety, immune system dysfunction, and disease.
But here’s the good news: When we manage our cortisol levels (read: get quality sleep, eat well, exercise but don’t overexercise, and have a stress-relief ritual like meditation), we can experience a myriad of health benefits our bodies will thank us for. I called on experts to walk us through the telltale signs you have chronically elevated cortisol and the perks you can expect when you chill TF out. Read on for what they had to say.
Signs you have high cortisol levels
There’s no denying our bodies send us cues when we’re hungry, tired, and stressed. And as much as stress gets a bad rap, it can send us red flags to watch out for. Here are the general symptoms your body is producing too much cortisol:
weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
weight gain and rounding of the face
high blood pressure
Benefits of lowering cortisol levels
1. Reduced inflammation
If you have consistently high levels of cortisol, your body can get used to having too much cortisol, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. “Cortisol can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while also affecting insulin sensitivity, so lower cortisol levels can help reduce inflammation in the body, leading to fewer aches and pains,” explained Becca Smith, a licensed professional counselor and Chief Clinical Officer at BasePoint Academy. No pain, all the gain, am I right?
2. Lower blood pressure
In times of high stress, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, so it should come as no surprise that when you lower your stress, your blood pressure follows suit. “Robust evidence shows that sustained cortisol rest allows your muscles to relax, which lowers your heart and breathing rate, normalizes blood oxygenation, lowers blood pressure, and lowers blood sugar and fat release and deposition,” said Jessica Houston, MEd, MSPH, Founder and CEO of Vitamin & Me.
3. Better skin
It’s no secret that stress can lead to pesky breakouts—none of us are immune to waking up with an untimely zit trying to meet a work deadline or after a fight with your SO. But when you zen out, your skin is one of first to reap the benefits. The result? A major glow-up. “Because cortisol stimulates oil production (which can lead to acne and other skin problems), reducing cortisol can help improve your skin’s health,” Smith affirmed. “Low cortisol results in clearer skin, brighter eyes, shinier hair, and a more visible flush on the cheeks,” echoed Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed therapist. “This is because stress no longer impairs internal bodily processes, allowing internal organs to function more efficiently.”
4. Improved digestion and metabolism
If you’re like me, digestive drama isn’t far behind when stress rears its ugly head. The reason? Stress may cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach and slows down digestion to have more energy to either fight or flight (AKA your body’s primal stress response). These changes could lead to cramping, inflammation, or an imbalance of gut bacteria. The silver lining? “When we we lower cortisol to better care for ourselves through incremental positive health behaviors (i.e. stress management, sleep, food choice, exercise), our blood sugars stabilize and there is less excess glucose circulating through the body with nowhere to go, improving digestion and metabolism,” described Sarah-Nicole Bostan, a clinical health psychologist and Director of Behavior Change Strategy at Signos. What’s more, “Appropriate cortisol levels modulate the inflammatory response and regulate metabolism, leading to improved gut and immune health,” Houston explained.
5. Boost in mood
There are the aforementioned physical health benefits of keeping your cortisol levels at bay, then there are the advantages to your mental health. “Neurochemical changes to the brain as a result of lowering cortisol not only improve hormone levels involved in the stress pathway, but they stimulate the production of mood-elevating endorphins,” Houston stated. And we can do our part in turning up the dial on those endorphins through exercise, eating foods we enjoy, and having sex.
Chronic cortisol also impacts symptoms of anxiety and depression. “Lowering chronic cortisol can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms by increasing serotonin production in the brain,” Smith said. “It helps you to respond better to stress in the future by giving your body more tools to manage stressful situations without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms.” Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or therapist if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression.
6. Enhanced focus and energy
“Chronic stress and high cortisol levels can lead to a decrease in serotonin, disrupting the brain’s normal functioning,” Smith conveyed. “This, in turn, can lead to poor concentration, low energy levels, and loss of interest in activities. [Lowering chronic cortisol] helps restore balance to your body’s hormone levels, resulting in an improved ability to concentrate and focus on tasks as well as increased energy levels.” Bottom line: Keeping your cortisol levels in check translates to bringing your A game (hello, productivity).
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.
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