Cortisol, the stress hormone: myths and facts

What is the role of cortisol and is it really the villain of the hormone deck? Find out in this post!

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We have all felt stressed at some time: worry, nervousness, anxiety… but why is this? Generally thought that the reasons are external factors, but our hormones also have a lot to do with our mood and, consequently, our stress levels. Would you like to know how to download them from a scientific and effective point? In this post we will talk about cortisol: the stress hormone, myths and truths.

What is cortisol and what functions does it have in the body?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys. It is also known as the “stress hormone” because its release increases in situations of tension or danger, which is why cortisol levels skyrocket in situations that generate fear or tension of any kind.

These are the functions that this hormone performs:

  • Regulates metabolism: helps maintain proper blood sugar levels and processes carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
  • Responds in times of stress: during situations that our brain interprets as risky, cortisol is released to prepare the body to deal with the situation. This can increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and improve energy availability. For example, when we work under pressure for a long period of time, cortisol levels remain very high, and this causes great physical exhaustion. That is why workers who suffer from a lot of stress tend to somatize it in some way, such as: muscle contractures, severe headaches, skin disorders and even develop psychological symptoms of anxiety or depression.  
  • Control of inflammation: Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect and helps to reduce the response of the immune system in situations of injury or disease.
  • Regulation of sleep and wakefulness: this hormone follows a daytime release pattern, being higher in the morning and lower at night, which influences our circadian rhythm. When we find ourselves in difficult or atypical situations for our lifestyle, cortisol levels remain, preventing us from resting.

As you can see, the objective of cortisol is to keep us active and alert so that we emerge victorious from “risk” situations. However, when we fail to manage our emotions or take effective measures to stay calm, this hormone is exceeded, becoming harmful to health.

What can we do to lower cortisol levels?

Basically, what we should do to lower cortisol is everything that relaxes us and makes us feel good. But, of course, not everyone has the same tactics, so if you have severe stress problems and your cortisol is through the roof, it is best to talk to an endocrinologist and/or psychologist.

However, below, we are going to leave you with a list of universal and very useful tips so that you can return your body and mind to calm:

Practice relaxation techniques: incorporate into your daily routine techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing or mindfulness practice. These activities help reduce the stress response and lower cortisol levels.

Exercise Regularly: Physical activity is a great way to release tension and reduce stress. Find an activity you enjoy, such as walking, running, swimming, or dancing, so you can do it at least three times a week.

Establish a proper sleep routine: Make sure you get enough sleep and maintain regular sleep schedules. Although, sometimes, the days get longer with homework and so on, it is important that you organize yourself so that bedtime is always more or less early and the same. Good quality sleep helps balance cortisol levels and promotes greater resistance to stress.

Follow a healthy diet: This does not mean that you live under harsh restrictions, but it does mean that you opt for a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. Avoid excessive consumption of caffeine and refined sugars, as they can contribute to the increase in cortisol in stressful situations.

Socialize and maintain connections: Being in the company of friends, family, or close people can help reduce stress and anxiety. It is proven that sharing experiences and emotions with others provides emotional support, lowers cortisol levels, and ultimately makes us feel better.

Is cortisol the villain of hormones?

Just like having cortisol too high is not good, having it too low is not good either, we need cortisol like any other hormone in the deck. It is the one that gets us up in the morning, the one that activates us in situations that require extra energy and the one that sharpens our senses when we are in danger.

Having too low cortisol can lead to depression and, in fact, people suffering from post-traumatic stress need to increase this hormone.

Also… there are some myths about cortisol

  • Cortisol always makes us fat: While chronically elevated cortisol levels can play a role in weight gain, it’s not the only cause.
  • Cortisol is only released in stressful situations: It’s true that cortisol is released in response to stress, but it also follows a natural circadian rhythm with levels highest in the morning and lowest at night.
  • Cortisol only affects emotions: Although cortisol is associated with stress, it also plays an important role in regulating metabolism, the immune system, and other bodily functions.

Learn more about stress management and emotional intelligence at work with the Educa.Pro blog!

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