Cortisol, often referred to as ‘the stress hormone,’ is a steroid hormone that’s released by your adrenal glands in response to stressful situations. These situations can range from lifestyle stressors such as work or relationships, or even the extra effort your body expends when you do a high-intensity workout.  

Cortisol fluctuates throughout the day and contributes to the body’s fight or flight response. It helps form memories as well as regulate blood pressure, glucose metabolism, immune function, inflammatory response and insulin release. 

Too much or too little cortisol release over an extended period of time can affect your overall health. Slight increases can provide a quick burst of energy, make you more alert, temporarily heighten your immune system, and regulate your body’s homeostasis levels, which stabilizes overall health. 

However, long-term increased cortisol can affect your body’s ability to synthesize proteins which can slow muscle growth and repair. Over time, your metabolism will decline and your fitness performance will diminish. Higher cortisol over a sustained time can even lead to more serious health problems such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases. 

Here are some signs and symptoms that your cortisol levels may be too high for too long:

  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Acne 
  • Thinning skin 
  • Easily bruising 
  • Flush face 
  • Slowed healing 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Severe fatigue 
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Headaches  

On the flip side, Addison’s disease occurs when the body produces too little cortisol. It’s a rare condition that could lead to serious mental and physical disorders if left untreated. Some indicators that your cortisol levels are too low are prolonged weakness, fatigue and low blood pressure.  

The good news is that there are ways to manage how much cortisol your body releases. Exercise generates short-term cortisol spikes during your workout, while reducing levels at night to help you sleep better. If you’re under a lot of stress, try keeping your workouts to under an hour. This will help normalize your cortisol levels. 

Here are some other activities and lifestyle choices that have been found to help regulate cortisol release in the body: 

Cortisol is your body’s natural response to stressful life situations. We live in a high-stress society, so it’s important to be mindful of your anxiety levels and look for signs that you may be taking on too much. Step away, take a walk or a few deep breaths to help your body relax.

If you’re experiencing difficulties with stress management or showing signs of high or low cortisol levels, consult with a medical professional. 

Managing your cortisol through healthy lifestyle choices, and with the help of your physician if needed, will have a ripple effect on your overall wellbeing.