What is Cortisol?

When you are under stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol which is known as the “fight or flight” hormone. But what is cortisol and how does it relate to your overall health?

Cortisol is a critical hormone for survival and allows us to respond appropriately in a crisis situation. The reaction is call a stress response and it enables us to manage the stresses of everyday life, but interestingly enough, our brain cannot tell the difference between good stress and bad stress. Good stress might mean getting a promotion at work, doing something exciting like skydiving (assuming you find that exciting and not terrifying), or moving into a larger home with more room for you and your family. Bad stress, on the other hand, might be constant worry about your financial situation, dietary challenges, or chronic health problems and pain. In each situation, when the body feels stressed, a message is sent to the brain to release the hormone, cortisol, that enables us to spring into action.

Interestingly, in a stressful situation, once a goal or desired outcome is attained, the brain recognizes this and cortisol stops being released. The body naturally reduces the amount of the hormone in your body system. However, when stress occurs without a resolution and recovery period, the level of cortisol can remain at inappropriate levels leading to a myriad of health complaints and symptoms.

There are a host of negative mental and physical symptoms tied to having a chronic imbalance of cortisol in our bloodstream. An imbalance in the levels of cortisol have been clinically linked to weight gain, depression, anxiety, memory loss, learning difficulties, and weakening of the immune system, to name just a few.

So what can we do to lessen the effects of cortisol and live a healthier life?

An easy solution is to increase our levels of physical activity – even a moderate amount such as 20 minutes each day – is the number one way to reduce stress and in turn, reduce cortisol levels. Meditation, yoga, and practicing mindfulness all rank high as cortisol-busters. But other things such as simply being social, laughing, practicing an enjoyable activity, and listening to or playing relaxing and enjoyable music also greatly benefit us in the war against stress.

By managing your stress levels you are better able to balance and control your cortisol levels. The first step is to be conscious of those stressful feelings, and be ready to mitigate them using relaxation techniques and/or exercise. Left unchecked, constant stress will leave your cortisol levels unbalanced (either too high or later on, too low), and your mind and body will feel the negative effects which show up as chronic physical and mental symptoms.

So stop, take a deep breath, and set your sights on a healthier you!