Cortisol is a hormone found in humans and is secreted by the adrenal cortex situated in the adrenal glands above the kidneys. It belongs to a class of hormones called glucocorticoids (steroid hormones). Cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone” because of its raised levels in chronically stressed individuals. Although too much cortisol can wreak havoc in the body, cortisol should be present in the right amounts for optimal health.

What does cortisol do?

Cortisol regulates blood glucose levels, the immune system, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. But when cortisol levels get too high, its catabolic properties (meaning breaking down of tissues) can be devastating to your body.

Why is excess cortisol produced?

Your body produces cortisol to deal with stressful situations. In ancient times, that meant giving your body the boost of energy it needed to get away from life-threatening situations (like running away from sabretooth tigers). In modern times we don’t generally face many life-threatening situations, but instead, experience situations of perceived danger (like speaking in front of crowds or financial stresses).

Although we don’t need huge amounts of energy to run away anymore, our bodies still produce cortisol to enable us to run away should we want to. Prolonged exposure to certain stressors can cause our bodies to get stuck in a “fight-or-flight” response where our cortisol levels stay elevated; destroying our health.

Symptoms of chronic stress

If you experience the following symptoms, according to Health Renewal Clinic, you might be suffering from chronic stress:

  • Excessive fatigue after minimal exertion;
  • Feeling “overwhelmed” by relatively trivial problems;
  • Trouble awakening in the morning, despite adequate sleep;
  • Relying on coffee (caffeine) and other “energy” drinks for a pick-me-up;
  • Perceived energy burst after 6:00 PM;
  • Chronic low blood pressure;
  • Hypersensitivity to cold temperatures;
  • Increased premenstrual (PMS) symptoms;
  • Depression and/or mood swings;
  • Mental “fog” and poor memory;
  • Decreased sex drive;
  • Anxiety;
  • Craving sugar and salty foods;
  • Decreased appetite;
  • Imbalanced immune system;
  • Chronic allergies;
  • Generalised weakness and dizziness upon standing.

What can you do about stress?

Avoiding situations that cause you stress should go without saying. If you have a very stressful job, consider finding something else. Keep your living areas clean and tidy – when your house is messy, you are constantly reminded of work that needs to be done and your eyes have no place to rest visually. If a specific person causes you stress, consider avoiding them or if you can’t, learn how to manage the stress they cause by seeing a psychologist or counsellor. Avoid coffee and alcohol, and focus on eating whole foods rather than processed or fast foods. Get enough sleep and do some low-intensity exercises.

High cortisol levels are dangerous

High cortisol levels are more than just feeling a bit tired and stressed; it can be detrimental to your health. If you suspect you have high cortisol levels and your health is starting to suffer, you should see a Functional Medicine doctor to get tested and treated properly.

Read: Why am I so tired all the time?

Author

Somarié De Kock