A black woman looking stressed with her head in her hands

What is high cortisol and how can it affect you?

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Chronic stress has become the norm in day-to-day life, but there’s a chance this is causing high cortisol levels.

Acne, fatigue, weight gain — these are all symptoms that could be associated with a myriad of health problems. However, it could also be your body trying to tell you something specific. If your body is forced to cope with stress long-term, it can reap havoc, causing high cortisol levels.

What is cortisol?

Produced by the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney, cortisol is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’. It’s vital for many necessary bodily functions, including regulating metabolism and blood pressure, reducing inflammation and controlling the sleep cycle.

Stress can cause extra cortisol to be released into the body, triggering a natural fight or flight response. Cortisol levels rise to help our bodies deal with danger, assuming that it will soon pass, and our bodies — and cortisol levels — can return to normal.

However, according to Hazel Hayden, consultant nurse, menopause expert and founder of the Independent Health and Wellbeing Group, when stress becomes chronic and cortisol levels remain elevated, it can have serious effects on the body. Today’s busy lifestyles plays their part — between doom-scrolling on social media, long hours in stressful jobs and a constant flow of information, there’s plenty to set our cortisol shooting sky high.

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Chronic stress can have a serious impact on cortisol levels
Chronic stress can have a serious impact on cortisol levels
How can high cortisol affect your health?

Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt a number of the body’s natural processes, including the regulation of blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep-wake cycles and menstrual cycles. “Weight gain, particularly around the waist, can be a symptom, because cortisol can increase appetite and signal the body to shift metabolism to store fat,” says Hazel. “High levels of cortisol, especially if they remain elevated at night, can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or poor-quality sleep. In the same way a bad night’s sleep can make you feel exhausted or moody, chronic cortisol levels can also impact memory and cognitive performance, particularly in stressful situations.”

“In reproductive-aged women, high cortisol levels can also disrupt menstrual cycles and even affect fertility. Furthermore, elevated cortisol levels can also affect bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis, which is a concern for middle-aged women who are already at an increased risk due to hormonal changes.”

As the symptoms of high cortisol can be similar to other hormone-related disorders, it’s important to get tested to know for certain if you’re concerned about how you’re feeling. Blood tests, saliva tests and urine tests can all provide a comprehensive breakdown of whether your cortisol levels are unusually high.

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how to combat high cortisol levels
Meditation can help to combat high cortisol levels
How can you manage your cortisol levels?

Practices like mindfulness, meditation and deep-breathing exercises can aid in reducing stress. Exercise can also help to reduce cortisol levels. However, it’s essential to find a balance, as too much high-intensity exercise can actually increase cortisol levels and lead the body to return to stress mode.

Establishing a regular sleep schedule and creating a restful environment can improve sleep quality and help normalise cortisol levels, while eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can help. Limiting caffeine, alcohol and sugar intake can also be beneficial.

Having a healthy social life and engaging with friends, family and supportive communities can help reduce stress.

In some cases, especially where symptoms of anxiety or depression are present, speaking to healthcare professionals can be also beneficial. If there are underlying health issues contributing to high cortisol levels, such as Cushing’s syndrome, medical treatment may be necessary.

From insomnia to weight gain and potentially even infertility, the impact of elevated cortisol levels on the body is clear. Whether you’re looking to get a better night’s sleep or improve your energy levels day-to-day, getting tested to find out if high cortisol is the culprit is the first step to take in managing or improving your symptoms.

Words: Maybelle Morgan

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