a woman covering her face with her hands

You know, I really like wolves. In truth, they are one of my favorite animals, so to compare something so awful to something so beautiful and highly intelligent isn’t fair. So, I am officially flipping the script. No more big bad wolf. To all you iguana lovers out there: sorry, not sorry…   

In the intricate symphony of hormones that regulate our bodies, cortisol plays a lead role, often cast as the villain. Aptly nicknamed “the stress hormone,” cortisol’s effects on our bodies can be likened to the presence of a looming shadow, triggering a cascade of responses that can be both beneficial and detrimental. Understanding this hormone is crucial for maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Emergency response

Cortisol belongs to the class of hormones known as glucocorticoids, which are produced by the adrenal glands, situated atop our kidneys. These glands are our body’s emergency responders, releasing cortisol in response to stress. Whether it’s a looming deadline, a near-miss accident, an upcoming presidential election or an encounter with a wild animal, cortisol gears our body for action, heightening alertness and readiness for a potential threat.

The intricate process of cortisol production begins in the brain’s hypothalamus, which secretes corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in response to stress signals. CRH then stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn prompts the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This intricate feedback loop ensures that cortisol levels are appropriately regulated in response to stressors.

Cortisol’s primary function is to mobilize energy reserves, ensuring that our bodies are adequately prepared to cope with stress. It achieves this by increasing glucose levels in the bloodstream, boosting the availability of energy to fuel the body’s response. Additionally, cortisol suppresses non-essential functions such as digestion and reproduction temporarily, redirecting resources to more critical processes.

However, prolonged exposure to elevated cortisol levels can have detrimental effects on our health. Chronic stress, characterized by persistently high cortisol levels, has been linked to a myriad of health issues, including anxiety, depression, weight gain, impaired cognitive function and a weakened immune system. Furthermore, cortisol’s role in promoting the accumulation of visceral fat around organs has earned it a notorious reputation in the realm of weight management.

Elevated cortisol levels can linger for hours or even days, depending on the intensity and duration of the stress. This prolonged exposure can perpetuate the cycle of stress and exacerbate its detrimental effects on both physical and mental health.

Combating cortisol

Given the profound impact of cortisol on our well-being, it becomes imperative to adopt strategies to mitigate its effects and restore balance to our hormonal milieu (that’s a $10 word for “environment”). Here are the top three evidence-based approaches to lower cortisol levels:

  • Mindfulness and meditation: Engaging in mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises and yoga can significantly reduce cortisol levels. These techniques promote relaxation and activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the stress response triggered by cortisol.
  • Regular exercise: Physical activity serves as a potent antidote to stress. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural mood elevators, while simultaneously reducing cortisol levels. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week to reap these stress-reducing benefits.
  • Prioritize sleep: Adequate sleep is paramount for maintaining optimal cortisol levels. Chronic sleep deprivation disrupts the body’s natural cortisol rhythm, leading to heightened stress levels and increased susceptibility to stress-related health problems. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night to support cortisol regulation and promote resilience to stress.

So, while cortisol may wield considerable influence over our physiological responses to stress, it need not reign as an unchecked tyrant. By adopting lifestyle strategies that promote relaxation, physical activity and restful sleep, we can effectively tame the “big bad iguana” within and cultivate a harmonious balance within our bodies and minds.

Jennifer Boltz-Harvey
Jennifer Boltz-Harvey is the owner and operator of Highly Motivated Functionally Caffeinated, LLC, a concierge personal training and nutrition coaching business in the Keys. Her passions include helping people reach their health goals as well as working out, cooking and traveling with her husband. She also really loves snuggles from her dog, Stella.