Most people are unaware of how to take care of their bodies the right way. Coping with everyday stresses may seem difficult to achieve, especially when it affects parts of the body that we don’t notice too often. Today, we’re going to look into the importance of managing cortisol level in your body.
Unless you are aware of what is exactly going on with your body, you will probably find it difficult to keep yourself fit and healthy. It may also be a challenge to know how to handle different conditions related to your health.
Stress is one of the most common causes of diseases and health problems. That’s why it is essential to fully understand how to manage yourself should your body encounter imbalance.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex, which is located in the adrenal glands above the kidneys. It is the main glucocorticoid in humans.
Cortisol is responsible for the following:
- Response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration
- Important agent for bone formation
- Increase in blood sugar through various ways, such as immune system suppression, glucogenesis, and metabolism
- Central nervous system activation
- Anti-inflammatory actions
- Blood vessel tone and contraction
When people experience stress, cortisol is released. Glucose level increases, which are used by the muscles to provide energy. With this situation, insulin is restricted so that glucose can be readily used.
The arteries get narrow, thereby forcing the blood pressure to increase. The heart rate and epinephrine increase as well. Along with this, the heart is forced to work harder, enabling the individual to react instantly to the situation. Once the situation has been resolved, the cortisol level goes back to its homeostasis level.
Causes of High Cortisol
High cortisol level can be brought about by different situations, such as:
- Pregnancy or use of birth control pills
- Conditions such as illness, injury, surgery, or sepsis
- Severe liver or kidney disease
- High-intensity resistance exercise
The Importance of Managing Cortisol Level
Working for long hours and being faced with so many nerve-wracking situations each day may cause our stress level to aggravate. In turn, this raises the cortisol level. You might think that cortisol is not necessary, but it can be beneficial as it functions primarily in the fight-or-flight response of our body.
Of course, anything in excess is something that makes it worse. The same goes with an excess amount of cortisol we produce when our body is bombarded with stress. Cortisol is released under tremendous physical or mental stress.
Having a high cortisol level puts us at an increased risk of:
- Fat deposits on the face and neck
- High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
- Impaired immunity
- Increased abdominal fat
- Insulin resistance
- Metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
- Reduced glucose utilization
- Reduced libido
- Reduced muscle mass
Citing these possible outcomes would mean an unhealthy and imbalanced life. When we are faced with a tragic situation, our cortisol level shoots up, thereby increasing the flow of glucose to the tissues and bloodstream. This gives a short-term boost in energy (or what’s called as an “adrenaline rush”) and helps to survive physical danger. This is the reason why cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone”.
While cortisol levels can be elevated on certain situations, it is also possible to experience low cortisol level in the following situations:
- Pituitary gland malfunction due to cancer or head injury.
- Addison’s disease
Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol Level
A lot of people face stressful situations such as financial security, job loss, and domestic problems. Apart from that, some of us also get stressed worrying about the environmental toxins as well as having to keep up with a healthy lifestyle.
The popularity of fast food restaurants has also contributed to the growing risk of obesity, which has also become one of the stresses that we face each day. Because of this, we experience chronic cortisol elevation. This is a level wherein the hormone never gets back to its normal level, which poses a threat to our health and our endurance.
The effects of chronic overexposure to cortisol can be overwhelming. As mentioned earlier, prolonged cortisol elevation may result in various medical conditions, which when left untreated could pose an increased risk of having to permanently live with it until it can slow you down and eventually cause early death.
To reduce the amount of cortisol, a mix of sufficient exercise and proper nutrition is needed. Exercise enables the endorphins to be released, which will offset any cortisol that is released during workouts for as long the nutritional requirements are met. If not, the body will be unable to process the cortisol as efficiently.
The combination of proteins and carbohydrates after a workout will help replenish loss of glucose and nitrate levels, and will bring the cortisol level back under control quicker than normal.
Testing for Cortisol Level
A cortisol test may be conducted to know if there is little or too much production of cortisol in the blood. The cortisol level may reveal potential complications in the pituitary gland or adrenal gland. The cortisol level may increase when the pituitary gland releases another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
Cortisol level is usually highest at about 7:00 AM, and drop in the evening. This pattern may be reversed when you sleep in the morning and are up at night.
However, there are individuals who do not have the ability to experience this daily change in cortisol level. These individuals may suffer from a condition called Cushing’s Syndrome.
It is important to have the proper timing in taking the cortisol test since the cortisol level may vary throughout the day. If the doctor thinks that you are making too much of the hormone, he may suggest taking the test later in the day. On the flip side, if he thinks that you may not be making enough, he may suggest that the test be done in the morning.
Preparation for a Cortisol Test
Before taking the cortisol test, the doctor may advise against doing any strenuous activity as it can elevate your cortisol level. At least 30 minutes before blood extraction, you may be asked to lie down.
Prior to taking the test, you should be able to provide all the information that your doctor may need most especially the list of medications that you are currently taking.
Certain medicines may affect the result of the test. Steroids can affect the cortisol levels even after you have stopped taking it for quite some time. Bottom line, all prescription and nonprescription medicines should be disclosed to the doctor.
Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor regarding your concern about the need for the test, the risks, the preparation, the method, and the meaning of the results.
How The Test Is Done
A health professional will perform the test. A standard cortisol test may involve the following steps:
- An elastic band will be wrapped around your upper arm to stop the flow of blood. This will make it easier to put a needle into the vein as the veins below the band become larger.
- Cotton soaked in alcohol will be used to clean the insertion site.
- A needle is inserted into the vein. There may be more than one needle stick needed.
- A tube will be attached to the needle to fill in with blood.
- The band from your arm will be removed when enough blood is collected.
- A gauze pad or cotton ball over the insertion site is placed as the needle is taken out.
- To stop the bleeding, a pressure over the site should be done and then a bandage is placed over it.
As careful as a health professional performs the extraction of blood, there is a small chance that problems may occur.
- A bruise is likely to occur at the site of insertion. To reduce the chance of bruising, put pressure on the site of insertion for several minutes.
- In rare cases, there is a possibility that the vein may become swollen after blood extraction. This condition is called phlebitis. Place a warm compress several times on the insertion site to reduce the swelling.
- Some individuals may have a bleeding disorder, which could delay clotting time. The doctors should be informed about this.
The normal value for cortisol level may change from lab to lab. However, the list below is a guide to help in determining the normal level along with the evaluation of the doctor that is based on different factors.
2-11 mcg/dL or 55-304 nmol/L
Child or Adult
Morning: 5-23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 138-635 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L)
Afternoon: 3-16 mcg/dL or 83-441 nmol/L
Cortisol Management Tips
There are several ways on how you can control your cortisol level to keep you at optimal health:
Instead of drowning your thoughts in things that can stress you out, replace them with happy thoughts. Going to a spa for a massage can be beneficial. You can also go for an easy swim or have some fun time with your friends over coffee.
Meditation can work wonders. Attend a yoga class to stay active while making your mind and body relaxed.
Hit the sack when needed. Sleep may just be the ultimate answer to relieve you from stress. Sleep deprivation makes the nervous system in a constant state of alertness, thus requiring an increased level of cortisol.
Always try to attain eight hours of sleep to reduce the cortisol in the body as it can also help replenish and restore the tissues, muscles, and organs.
Follow a strict diet wherein you should consume whole foods instead of grabbing a quick bite of doughnuts, pizzas or hamburgers. Choose fiber-rich food to suppress your hunger.
Use of essential oils for relaxation
You may also want to use essential oils that will help you relax as they can help fight stress and balance hormones. These essential oils have been proven to be effective in reducing stress:
Making some changes in your lifestyle can already help you achieve a fit and healthy body. Learning to relax, taking pleasure in doing regular exercise, and enjoying healthy food can do wonders to your cortisol level and your overall health.