How cortisol actually deals with our body’s everyday stressors

meimagine if there is something that can solve all your problems. Fatigue, inflammation and weight gain? check Bad skin, puffiness and swelling? check Eye twitches, headaches and just about any kind of ailment you can think of? check If you’ve been on TikTok in the last week, you’ll know I’m talking about cortisol. For whatever reason, finding ways to control the stress hormone, as it’s often called, has become the Internet’s golden ticket to optimal living.

The hashtags #cortisollevels and #howtoreducecortisol have garnered over 150 million combined views on TikTok alone. Meanwhile, Google searches for cortisol hit an all-time high this month, with the search term how to reduce cortisol ranking fourth in UK searches over the past 90 days. Videos with millions of views advise people on all things cortisol, from natural ways to lower levels through diet to describing a day in the life of someone with high cortisol, where people blame various ailments and conditions (including round cheeks) to having excessive amounts of the hormone.

Then there are videos urging people to make drastic changes to lower their cortisol, like swapping HIIT workouts for yoga and quitting coffee, or starting the day by taking lots of supplements and spending 15 minutes in the sauna. There are even recipes for cortisol cocktails. It’s overwhelming, especially since almost none of these clips are created by doctors and most of them don’t even really explain what cortisol is.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s synthesized from cholesterol in the adrenal cortex, explains Jodie Relf, ​​a dietitian and spokeswoman for MyOva, a fertility supplement. During periods of stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, responsible for our fight-or-flight response, and triggers a sequence of hormonal and physiological responses such as increased heart and respiratory rates. When the threat continues, the adrenal cortex is stimulated to release cortisol, keeping the body on alert.

All this information can seem alarming, especially if you receive it through various abbreviations courtesy of a frantic and unskilled TikToker. It’s actually just a normal body response, and once the perceived threat is removed, cortisol levels usually return to normal. The production and secretion of cortisol is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, adds Relf. Loss of regulation can lead to disorders of excess cortisol such as Cushings syndrome or insufficient levels of cortisol such as Addison’s disease.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to lower our cortisol levels, which are elevated by stress. In today’s society, chronic stress has become more and more common, leading to elevated cortisol levels in many people, says Ruth Jamieson, ARVRA Functional Nutritionist for Wellness. Factors such as work pressure, financial stress, relationship problems, and lifestyle habits can contribute to chronic stress and cortisol dysregulation.

Fatigue is a common symptom of high cortisol (Getty)

The problem is that because we can be stressed by so many different factors in modern life, whether it’s work, money, health, social expectations, family, friends or our relationships, we often don’t give our bodies the chance to calm down. In short, there are perceived threats all around us.

The body does not differentiate between these different stressors; he interprets them all as a saber-toothed tiger and prepares to face or run from danger, adds Jamieson. While this response improves short-term survival and there are benefits to short-term stress, chronic stress leads to chronically elevated cortisol, which in turn can lead to dysregulation of the body’s vital functions.

This can manifest in a number of ways, from acne and muscle weakness to increased appetite, sleep disruptions and high blood pressure. There may also be some truth to the TikTok clips about high levels of cortisol affecting the specific shapes of sufferers’ faces and bodies. Left unchecked, high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, especially around the midsection and rounding of the face, says women’s wellness expert Dr. Shirin Lakhani. It can also affect your mood. High levels of cortisol can have an effect on the brain, causing changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters, so you can have imbalances in serotonin – your happy brain hormones. So you can start to have poor mental health, he adds.

With all of this in mind, it’s even more urgent that people get their cortisol information from the right sources. Sure, there may be clips with millions of views telling you how to hack your cortisol levels and lower them. Even tips can work. But considering how important this is and how much of your mind and body it can affect, it makes more sense to listen to medical experts.

So how can you actually lower cortisol? An easy place to start is by addressing your diet. Good nutrition can facilitate the body’s natural reduction of inflammation while promoting tissue repair; this can lower cortisol, says Steve Chambers, personal trainer at Ultimate Performance. This will lower cortisol, resulting in a decreased risk of chronic disease and improved well-being. Good nutrition consists of a balanced intake of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats in a defined ratio) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients).

Broadly speaking, this can be broken down into eating dark and leafy vegetables, drinking plenty of water, and cutting back on alcohol and caffeine. Weight lifting can also help. When looking to lose belly fat, too many people fall into the trap of thinking that endless cardio will change it, says Chambers. In fact, too much cardio will actually put your body under even more stress, leading to you guessed it elevated cortisol levels. So much so that many people feel incredibly frustrated and discouraged because despite the hours they spend on the treadmill, their weight won’t budge. Lifting weights has been shown to be much more effective when it comes to controlling cortisol levels and burning fat, when combined with a high-protein, calorie-controlled diet.

Lighter forms of exercise can also help, especially things like yoga and meditation. Engaging in activities that help you relax and unwind, such as listening to soothing music or spending time in nature, helps lower cortisol levels, Dr. Lakhani adds. Deep breathing exercises such as box breathing can also help. Box breathing involves being in a comfortable position, breathing in slowly and deeply through the nose for four seconds and holding the breath for four seconds, before exhaling through the mouth for four seconds. You should then hold your breath for four seconds before repeating the process.

Most importantly, though, you’ll lower your cortisol levels by identifying your key stressors and finding better ways to manage them. Ironically, scrolling through TikTok probably won’t help you, even if all you do is watch how-to videos, but several studies have linked excess screen time to cortisol dysregulation.

Be aware of your thought pattern, breathing, heart rate and other signs of stress so you can recognize stress when it starts and deal with it to prevent it from getting worse in the long run, suggests Ada Ooi, practitioner and founder of the medicine traditional chinese of 001 Skin care.

Sometimes, though, the best advice could be as simple as doing the things you love and surrounding yourself with the people closest to you. Laughter really is the best medicine that promotes the release of endorphins and suppresses cortisol, adds Ooi. We are often so busy that we forget to appreciate the little moments in life that bring us joy and help us feel more relaxed. They can make a big difference.

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