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Cortisol: the Stress Hormone

Your body is equipped with the amazing natural ability to repair itself, fight infections and disease, and even slow down the process of aging. But this can only happen when the nervous system is relaxed. When the body is stressed, repair mechanisms shut down. Excessive and prolonged stress can lead to elevated levels of cortisol—“the stress hormone”—and can a have devastating effect on your health.

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to fear or stress. Too much cortisol in the body can lower immune function, interfere with learning and memory, decrease bone density, and increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and the risk of depression. In short, chronic stress can lower your life expectancy.

Signs of High Cortisol

Cortisol levels usually drop during the night, to help you body recharge. But if your cortisol levels are too high, you may find it difficult to relax, no matter how tired you are. If you suffer from insomnia, or you toss and turn all night long, cortisol may be to blame. Over time, high levels of cortisol can lead to chronic fatigue, making it difficult to find the energy to get through the day. The stress hormone can also reduce your sex drive.

When cortisol levels are elevated due to chronic stress, your adrenal glands become depleted. This can raise prolactin levels, causing backaches, headaches, and an increased sensitivity to pain. Excess cortisol also leaves you vulnerable to infection. If you are sick often, or experience aches and pains, you may be suffering from high cortisol.

High levels of cortisol can cause weight gain, especially around the belly, even if you exercise and eat a healthy diet. A thick middle is often an indication of prolonged stress. Cortisol also raises blood sugar, making you crave sweets, and increasing the risk of diabetes. Stress can upset your gastrointestinal system, resulting in nausea, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, heartburn, and even Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Cortisol can affect your mood. If you are experiencing signs of depression, fly off the handle easily, or just have an overall anxious and jittery feeling, you may be suffering from too much cortisol. High levels of the stress hormone suppress the production of serotonin— “the happy hormone”.

Ways to Lower Cortisol Naturally

Regular physical activity is the best way to manage chronic stress. Being active boosts endorphins—the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters—to bust stress and burn cortisol. Any form of exercise will help shed tension and increase your sense of well-being. The most important thing is to pick an activity you enjoy and to stick with it. Of course, be sure to consult your doctor before starting a new fitness routine.

Yoga is an excellent physical activity to help manage stress and anxiety. Meditation can also help lower cortisol levels. Even the simple of task of taking a few deep breaths can signal your nervous system to slow down and decompress. Taking time to relax, breath, and be mindful can have an amazing, calming effect on your mind and body.

Having fun, laughing and spending time with friends and loved ones (including pets) can reduce cortisol and increase oxytocin—“the trust hormone. Close bonds and physical touch are vital to our health. Listening to music has also been proven to lower cortisol levels. Music has a powerful ability to reduce stress and make us happy. So gather the people you love, turn up the tunes and dance!