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Cortisol: Why this stress hormone is important for your health

Despite its bad reputation, cortisol is vital to your health. Just make sure your levels are in check.

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Cortisol is known as the "stress hormone" and it can affect your energy levels.

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With everything from the coronavirus to fighting racial injustice and a really important presidential election on the horizon, hardly anyone is spared from feelings of uncertainty and stress in 2020. What you may not know is that no matter what kind of stress you experience, behind the scenes an important hormone is at play, and it can affect everything from your weight to your energy levels: cortisol.

Once known as the "belly fat hormone," cortisol actually plays a much bigger role in your health -- although, yes, it can affect your weight. Maintaining healthy cortisol levels can help your mood and energy levels, help you sleep better and so much more. Keep reading to find out more about cortisol, how it relates to stress and what you can do to maintain healthy cortisol levels.

What is cortisol and what levels are normal?

Cortisol is known as the "stress hormone," since your body releases it in times of stress to help with certain functions, like controlling blood sugar and blood pressure. Whenever you're in "fight or flight" mode -- whether that's from a stressor like running from a bear or getting a stressful email (your body does not know the difference) -- your body releases cortisol in response.  

"Cortisol is a vital steroid hormone that helps your body respond to stress, and plays a role in both metabolism and immune system function," Victoria Albina, a family nurse practitioner, tells CNET. "It's made by your adrenal glands and is transported through your bloodstream throughout your body where it interacts with most every cell in your body."

"It has an anti-inflammatory effect and impacts brain and cognitive function, memory, blood pressure and so much more," Albania says. 

When it comes to cortisol, it's important to understand that it functions in a pattern -- and that pattern is key to how you feel. For example, cortisol is naturally supposed to spike in the morning to help you feel awake and alert -- but for some people, cortisol levels are low in the morning, which may leave them feeling tired and sluggish. Also, a cortisol pattern that spikes at night could be to blame for why you're unable to go to sleep earlier or feel "wired and tired" at night. 

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Reducing stress is one way to help keep cortisol levels healthy.

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The cortisol and stress connection 

Since cortisol is deeply related to stress (whether physical or psychological) it's important to understand how your stress levels can affect your cortisol function over time. One of the ways that cortisol can get out of whack is from prolonged, or unchecked stress -- and that can even come from your thoughts.

"Our sympathetic systems get activated by our thoughts and our somatic or bodily reaction to the things that are encoded in our minds as 'dangerous,' 'worrisome' or 'a problem,'" Albina says. "Your habitual, unintentional thoughts about things like an email from your boss, a date ghosting you, the latest COVID-19 numbers, a comment on your Instagram post (or lack of comments there!) all trigger the molecules of emotion in your body. These chemical messengers so often lead us to feel stressed, anxious, more worried or upset."

This is why stress management is the first line of defense for preventing cortisol imbalances and the health problems related to it. It's also one of the first things you have to manage in order to get cortisol back in balance if you find that it's off.

Symptoms of high or low cortisol

Since cortisol affects so many different systems in your bodies, the symptoms of high or low cortisol vary. But in general, here are the common symptoms reported.

High cortisol symptoms

  • Changes in menstrual cycle
  • Changes in libido or low sex drive
  • Mood swings with anxiety, depression or irritability 

High levels of cortisol can also cause a condition called Cushing Syndrome, which can happen when your cortisol levels are elevated for too long.

Symptoms of Cushing Syndrome, according to Mayo Clinic, include:

  • Weight gain and fatty tissue deposits, particularly around the midsection and upper back, in the face (moon face), and between the shoulders (buffalo hump)
  • Pink or purple stretch marks (striae) on the skin of the abdomen, thighs, breasts and arms
  • Thinning, fragile skin that bruises easily
  • Slow healing of cuts, insect bites and infections
  • Acne

Low cortisol symptoms

Low cortisol levels can cause a health condition called Addison's Disease, also known as primary adrenal insufficiency, though it's rare. A more common effect of low cortisol levels is secondary adrenal insufficiency, which is when your brain fails to signal the adrenal glands to make cortisol. This occurs when your adrenal glands can no longer produce enough cortisol that your body needs to function. 

Low cortisol isn't always caused by adrenal issues though, it can also happen when you have problems with the pituitary gland, which regulates your hormones.

Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency or Addison's Disease:

  • Pain in the muscles and joints
  • Low blood pressure leading to dizziness upon standing
  • Cravings for salt 
  • Symptoms of low blood sugar, such as sweating 
  • Darkened skin on the face, neck and back of the hands 
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle loss
  • Weight loss
  • Mood swings
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Sticking to a healthy and balanced diet can help you keep cortisol levels healthy.

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How to optimize cortisol levels

Manage stress

It's easier said than done, but since cortisol levels are triggered by stress, it's important to find healthy ways to cope with stress. Whether that means finding relaxing activities you enjoy, spending time in meditation or picking up a yoga practice -- the key to healthy cortisol levels is finding ways to make sure you don't stay in chronic "fight or flight" mode. Sleep is also important for overall health, but it's crucial for helping you cope with day-to-day stress.

Eat a balanced diet 

Jill Shainhouse, a naturopathic doctor and board member at Well Told Health, says that diet can influence cortisol levels, especially when it comes to excess sugar. "There is also evidence that excessive sugar or simple carbohydrate consumption may increase cortisol levels. People who have developed 'insulin resistance' typically have higher blood sugar and corresponding higher cortisol levels," she says. 

If you currently eat lots of added sugar or processed foods sweetened with sugar and are concerned with cortisol, it's worth taking a close look at how to start reducing sugar intake in order to keep your blood sugar and ultimately cortisol in check.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.