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All you need to know about cortisol

Right now we live uncertain and stressful times due to COVID-19. We have been forced to change our routines. Our bodies have already paid the price… have you gained weight during quarantine? This new situation can cause discomfort and anxiety. Lately I have come across clients who had gained a lot of weight during quarantine. They blame lack of exercise and/or overeating, but in many cases there is another reason. I have had to explain to many clients how cortisol may be affecting their lives and their bodies. Today I will explain everything you need to know about cortisol, the stress hormone. I hope you find it useful.
 

Cortisol: what is it, function, normal values and alterations

 
Above the kidneys we have the adrenal glands, whose function is to release different hormones. The outer part of the gland, called the adrenal cortex, makes the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. The inner part of the gland, called the adrenal medulla, produces the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine.
When you are facing a threat, your hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This system prompts the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises blood pressure, and increases energy supplies. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and improves glucose use in the brain. Cortisol also reduces functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a “fight or flight” situation (immune, digestive, reproductive, and growth processes). This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
 
Back in the day, this survival mechanism served us to flee from some dangerous animal. Nowadays, we face stressful situations a little different: not being late for work, finishing projects on time, meetings, not missing the bus to meet friends … In all these situations, our body reacts by becoming alert, hoping to overcome adversity and threats. In the short term, the release of cortisol is very helpful and serves as a form of protection for your body. In combination with adrenaline, the two hormones perform many important tasks in your body. Iin stressful situations, they prepare you to be on top of your game. Cortisol works to improve your performance. Essentially, cortisol activates you in demanding situations. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume normal activities. So far so good.
The reference values for cortisol levels in the blood are:
  • Morning: 5 to 25 µg / dL;
  • End of the day: less than 10 mcg / dL.
  • At very high levels it can reach 80 μg / dl.
 
When stressors are always present and you constantly feel in danger, that fight or flight reaction stays on. Long-term activation of the stress response system and overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that act accordingly can disrupt almost every process in your body. This increases the risk of many health problems, such as:
 
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Insomnia
  • Increase in blood sugar
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased thirst and urinary frequency
  • Memory lapsus
  • Difficulty in learning
  • Little growth
  • Decrease in testosterone
  • Decreased libido
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Increased probability of suffering from osteoporosis
Fortunately, it can reduce excess cortisol production. How does this work?

7 science-backed ways to lower cortisol

 
1.- Cut on sugar: One of the easiest ways to fight high cortisol levels, stress, and weight gain is to cut down on the simple sugars found in cakes, candy, soda, or white bread. Cortisol regulates the level of sugar in the blood. If you eat foods with a lot of sugar, your blood sugar level and consequently your cortisol levels will rise. Ironically, many people eat sugary foods to relax. However, sugar causes an increased release of cortisol. The combination of sugar with white flour, which is used in many cakes and sweets, raises cortisol levels even more. Choosing complex carbohydrates, rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats (whole grains, dairy, legumes or vegetables) will help you lower cortisol levels.
2.- Eat foods rich in phenylalanine and vitamin C: Phenylalanine is an amino acid that helps release dopamine. Dopamine will reduce the urge to eat carbohydrates and sugars and therefore wiil help reduce stress. Phenylalanine is found mostly in protein foods like dairy, eggs, red meat, fish, and some whole grains. Vitamin C, like dopamine, also helps to secrete dopamine and reduce stress. Vitamin C is found in vegetables and fruits.
 
3.- Cut or reduce caffeine intake: It is not just sugar, caffeine also greatly increases the production of cortisol. Coffee, energy drinks, and the like stimulate the adrenal glands, causing them to release more cortisol. Regular caffeine consumption can double the blood cortisol content. A good alternative is green tea. It only contains about a quarter of the caffeine, but at the same time the tea has a relaxing effect thanks to a special amino acid. A study from the Ben-Gurion University School of Health Sciences recently found that the amino acid L-theanine counteracts the production of cortisol and reduces its levels in the blood.
4.- Avoid or limit alcohol intake: A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that men who only had one drink a week saw a 3% increase in their cortisol levels, and those levels can be even higher if they are under tremendous pressure. Since it is a depressant of the nervous system, it can also cause depressive states.
 
5.- Adequate hydration: Drinking enough water a day – around eight glasses – is essential to better regulate cortisol levels. According to a 2018 study of young soccer players, even mild dehydration can lead to an increase in cortisol levels.
 
6.- Moderate-intensity exercise: We are not talking about training as long or as hard as possible. High intensity sport for about 15-20 minutes can stimulate cortisol production. The reason for this is again anchored in the human “fight or flight” response. For example, sprint can trigger a complex stress reaction. Your brain receives the message that you are fleeing danger and proceeds to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. However, if you want to lower your cortisol levels, you should do moderate-intensity exercise. A study published in The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation  has investigated the best ways to lower cortisol levels. The results indicated that relaxing sports, such as yoga or meditation, are the most appropriate. That said, other more active types of sports are definitely appropriate as well. 20 to 30 minutes of light physical activity – such as walking or biking – will reduce your stress and therefore consume excess cortisol.
In addition, including relaxation and meditation exercises in your routine will reduce the risk of experiencing chronic stress, a study from Ohio State University has concluded.
 

7.- Dark chocolate!!!

Believe it or not, dark chocolate keeps cortisol levels stable. A 2019 study published in the journal Antioxidants suggests that consuming just 25 grams of dark chocolate each day may lower overall cortisol levels.

Stressful events are part of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage how these events affect you. You can learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in stressful situations. The reward  is peace of mind and perhaps a longer, healthier life.