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High Cortisol Levels: How to Reduce Stress & Regain Balance

Updated: Jul 11

Cortisol, often referred to as the "stress hormone," plays a crucial role in our body's response to stress. Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol is involved with regulating important bodily functions. While it is vital for our health, consistently high cortisol levels can have adverse effects, particularly when they are stress-related. This blog post delves into the implications of elevated cortisol levels due to stress, and how to manage and reduce them for better overall health. 



Stressed woman with high cortisol


What is High Cortisol? 

Cortisol is essential for numerous bodily functions, including regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, controlling blood sugar levels, and assisting with memory formulation. Cortisol plays an important role in the body, however, consistently high cortisol levels can have adverse effects on your health and wellness. 

While high cortisol levels can result from various factors, including medical conditions such as Cushing's syndrome and medications like corticosteroids, here we will focus on stress-induced elevated cortisol levels. 

 


Stress-Induced Cortisol Elevation 

Often referred to as the "stress hormone," cortisol plays a crucial role in our body's response to stress. When we encounter a stressful situation, our body's "fight or flight" response is triggered. This response involves the release of cortisol and adrenaline, preparing us to either confront or flee from the threat. While this response is crucial for short-term survival, chronic stress can lead to persistently high cortisol levels, which can have numerous negative health implications. 

 


Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels 

Persistently high cortisol levels can manifest through various symptoms, including: 


  • Weight gain, especially in the belly and face 

  • Fatty deposits between the shoulder blades, also known as a “buffalo hump” 

  • Differences in skin quality, including fragile skin, acne, easy bruising, and stomach stretch marks 

  • High blood pressure  

  • Weakness in the muscles and bones 

  • Mood swings, anxiety, or depression 

  • Digestion issues and increased thirst 

  • Headaches and cognitive difficulties, such as memory problems 

  • Fatigue, insomnia, and sleep disturbances 

  • Decreased libido 


Women specifically can also experience excessive hair growth and irregular menstrual cycles. 

 


Health Implications of Prolonged High Cortisol 

Long-term elevation of cortisol due to chronic stress can lead to several health issues, including: 


  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease: High cortisol levels can lead to hypertension and increased cholesterol levels. 

  • Weakened immune system: Chronic stress can suppress immune function, making the body more susceptible to infections. 

  • Metabolic problems: Persistently high cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes. 

  • Mental health issues: Chronic stress is closely linked to anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. 

  • Digestive problems: High cortisol levels can affect the digestive system, leading to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

 

 

How to Reduce Stress & Lower Cortisol Levels 

Fortunately, there are several strategies to manage and reduce stress-induced cortisol levels: 


1. Relaxation Techniques

Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress by promoting relaxation and emotional well-being. These practices have been shown to lower cortisol levels significantly for people who are under a lot of stress. Mindfulness and meditation practices work to help us cope with stress in a more relaxed and measured way. Other calming practices like yoga, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation, can help to return your body to a more relaxed state. The goal of these practices is to pull your thoughts away from the source of your stress and intentionally slow down your mind and body.


2. Regular Exercise 

Engaging in regular physical activity can help regulate cortisol levels. Exercise, especially aerobic activities like walking, running, and cycling, can reduce stress and promote overall health. That doesn't mean you have to get a gym membership; it can help to start small, like going on a 15-minute walk every day and slowly increase the time or frequency as you feel comfortable. 


3. Caffeine & Dietary Changes 

Caffeine can increase cortisol levels; try reducing the amount of caffeinated beverages you consume. Eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods can also help manage cortisol levels. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and walnuts, and those rich in antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, can support overall health and stress reduction. 


4. Adequate Sleep 

Quality sleep is crucial for regulating cortisol levels. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and maintain a consistent sleep schedule to promote better sleep hygiene. If you struggle with falling asleep, try to avoid screens for 1 hour before bed. Instead, try reading a book or doing a guided sleep meditation. 


5. Time Management  & Workload

Effective time management can reduce stress by helping you prioritize tasks and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Break tasks into manageable chunks, set realistic goals, and take regular breaks. If your workload is contributing to your stress, consider speaking to your employer about reducing your workload.


Make Yourself a Priority 

Understanding the connection between stress and cortisol can empower you to take proactive steps to manage and reduce stress. Dedicate yourself to your own well-being and take steps to lower your cortisol. Remember, managing stress is not just about reducing cortisol but also about enhancing your quality of life. 



 


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Emily McGuire is a Marketing Associate and staff writer for Resolve Wellness. With a Bachelor's degree in International Business from UC San Diego, she is a California native with a passion for writing, digital marketing, health, and wellness.


Reviewed by: Erynne Hill, MS, ATC, HHP, BFRC, a Nationally Certified Athletic Trainer and Massage Therapist who has been a part of the healthcare field since 2002. She is the Director of Resolve Wellness, specializing in manual lymphatic drainage and prenatal massage. Erynne has extensive knowledge of both massage and physiology, even receiving her Master's degree in Exercise Physiology from San Diego State University.

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