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Want to Live Better? Reduce Stress and Cortisol Levels

May 11 2021
4 min read
Side view of woman sitting at a table in a dark room looking at her laptop screen.

Chronic stress takes a toll on the body.

In fact, experts link heightened levels of stress to an increased risk for heart disease, immune imbalances, infertility, type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, gastrointestinal issues, and more. So how does stress cause so many health issues? A hormone called cortisol, aka the stress hormone, is believed to be the culprit. Understanding how cortisol works may encourage you to find ways to manage your stress to improve both your mental and physical wellbeing.

Cortisol is actually a vital component of our survival and success. Think caveman days: You encounter a wild animal. The hormone kicks in, boosting your blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood pressure for a quick hit of energy that allows you to escape. At the same time, cortisol puts the breaks on body functions, like digestive and reproductive systems, that aren’t necessary — or are perhaps even detrimental — during the encounter. While you may not come face to face with a Bengal tiger these days, cortisol still has an important role to play in your life. When you’re feeling stressed — because of an oncoming car or a last-minute a deadline, for example —your body automatically releases cortisol to help you tackle the “danger.”

But when you’re chronically stressed out (whether it’s a real or perceived danger), your body gets stuck in this fight-or-flight mode and your adrenal glands overproduce the stress hormone. As mentioned, high cortisol levels for long periods of time are dangerous.

It’s a classic example of too much of a good thing. In small amounts, cortisol uses your body’s fat stores, carbohydrates, and protein in a useful manner. But when excess cortisol is continuously pumping through your system, your body gets confused and fat ends up accumulating around the abdomen. This visceral fat causes inflammation that is linked to a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, autoimmune diseases, and type 2 diabetes. An overabundance of cortisol can also increase the body’s production of glucose and further compound your risk of insulin resistance and diabetes. But that’s not all. Experts say chronically elevated levels of cortisol can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes, leading to such problems as thinning bones, osteoporosis, cataracts, weakening of the immune system, damage to the gastrointestinal tract, and memory loss.

Should you completely avoid stress? Not only is that impossible, but some level of stress helps you stay safe and productive. The key is to learn how to manage stress to keep cortisol from impacting your health. For starters, try focusing your attention on your breathing for a few seconds when you feel anxiety creeping in. Place your hand on your chest and feel it rise and fall with each breath. Inhale through your nose to the count of seven, hold for seven counts, then exhale deeply and slowly. Repeat a few times and notice your heart rate slow down. (You’ll also notice your body relax right along with it.) Whether it’s through deep breathing exercises like this, yoga, meditation, aerobic activity, nature walks, or weekly massages — find a way to calm your stress, lower your cortisol levels, and feel better.