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In not just the fitness industry, but in the general public sphere as well, cortisol gets a very bad rap as being the number one villain when it comes to both physical and psychological issues. It’s blamed for everything from anxiety, high blood pressure and stroke to bloating, muscle loss and fatigue. However, cortisol isn’t the great antagonist that we make it out to be. Sure, an excess amount of it can cause a whole bunch of unwanted side effects but cortisol is, in fact, a hormone that is absolutely essential to our survival and well-being. The key is having a good understanding of it and how it functions. This will, in turn, help people to strike a good balance with it and develop a good relationship with it.
Firstly, let’s have a look at what cortisol is and how it actually works.
Cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex which is located on top of both your kidneys. Your pituitary gland, which is located in the brain, determines how much cortisol is released when the necessary situation arises. Obviously, this amount varies from person to person.
This “stress-fighting” hormone, according to Columbia University’s Health System, converts protein into fuel when you’re under physical or psychological stress evoked by traumatic events. Once your brain no longer perceives a situation as threatening, your cortisol levels return to normal.
Cortisol levels can fluctuate among individuals and in the same people at different times in the day. For example, normally, cortisol is present in the body at higher levels in the morning and is at its lowest at night. The cycle repeats daily.
It can also fluctuate based on what a person is experiencing. For instance, although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s stress response and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:
Even though cortisol has its benefits, ongoing, continuous and long-term stress can make your adrenal glands produce too much cortisol when your “fight-or-flight” response is constantly triggered, according to MayoClinic.com. Excess cortisol and other stress hormones can leave you open to a number of potentially serious health complications such as:
Therefore, it is quite important that we learn how to manage our stress and, in turn, our cortisol levels as well. So, here are a few strategies that you can use to help regulate that elusive hormone.
The timing of your sleep, the amount of sleep you get and the quality of that sleep all affect the way your body regulates its cortisol levels. A review of 28 studies of shift workers found that cortisol increases in people who sleep during the day rather than at night. Over time, sleep deprivation causes increased levels. Rotating shifts also disrupt normal daily hormonal patterns, contributing to fatigue and other problems associated with high cortisol.
So, keep in mind that adhering to a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine in the evening, maintaining a well-balanced sleep rhythm and getting seven to eight hours of sleep daily will do wonders to keep your cortisol in check and working for you as opposed to against you.
Nutrition and food intake definitely play a role in the regulation of your cortisol levels.
You may have heard that sugar can aggravate the cortisol levels in your body and this has been seen as true for obese individuals. However, when taken correctly cortisol can actually reduce your cortisol levels in response to extremely stressful events.
Additionally, a few specific foods can benefit cortisol levels:
Remember to stay hydrated as well. Dehydration increases cortisol levels so make sure you’re getting in your daily allotted water amount.
Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids that have been scientifically linked to the reduction of elevated cortisol levels.
One study looked at how seven men responded to mentally stressful testing over three weeks. One group of men took fish oil supplements and the other group didn’t. Fish oil reduced cortisol levels in response to stress.
Keeping fish oil in your daily routine will help keep your body’s cortisol levels in check along with a whole lot of other benefits to boot.
So with a little light shed on the mystery surrounding cortisol and now armed with some tips on how to make sure your cortisol levels stay balanced, tackling the ever-elusive stress hormone will be a much easier task for you to handle.
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