You guessed it…its that stress hormone we all love and hate.
How does it work?
When your body senses danger your adrenal gland releases cortisol which shoots out to receptors all over the body triggering the fight or flight response. In some parts of the body it increases function, for example your heart rate will go up and your vision will focus. But cortisol will also trigger less needed systems in a fight or flight situation to slow down like your digestive or immune system.
Cortisol can be a great thing; It’s what makes you feel energized and alert! It’s why you feel more productive when you are approaching a deadline. It can help you win a race, fight off an attacker, or stay up all night when you are lost in the woods (it can also help you stay up all night playing video games or debating on Facebook).
Once the danger has passed your cortisol levels should go back down allowing your body systems to return to a more relaxed state!
The reason you have probably heard of cortisol is because sometimes it doesn’t function like it should. If we are stressed all the time and cortisol is constantly being released at high levels into our systems then our relaxed state systems don’t get a chance to do their job. Some modern ( i.e. not life or death) sources of stress include work and family pressures, screen time, video games, high intensity workouts, traffic. The list goes on…
Constant high levels of cortisol can cause disrupted sleep, headaches, anxiety, digestive issues, depression, insulin- resistance, concentration issues, and loss of memory. Further, in some cases of too much stress the adrenal glands will actually get worn out and therefore not produce enough cortisol to get you through your day leaving you fatigued.
In general cortisol should be highest in the morning and slowly decrease throughout the day leading up to bed time.
If you feel like your stress hormones are out of whack…what can you do?
1. Get sleep! Studies show sleepers of less than 7 hours a night experience all sorts of hormone disruptions including cortisol.
What if you can’t sleep…try moving your stressors to earlier in the day so your cortisol doesn’t spike at night? Possible strategies include: writing tasks that come to mind down leaving them for morning, turn off screens several hours before bed, avoid scary or super dramatic stories, save intense conversations for daytime, don’t do high intensity exercise before bed.
2. Me Time: Schedule time in the afternoons or evenings to relax. Meditate, take a walk or hike, get a massage or take a bath, take a nap, read a book, watch a comedy, drink some tea, stretch, cuddle with a pet, paint… What do you like to do?
3. Exercise: Both low and high intensity exercises can help manage hormones for different reasons. The majority of exercise should be low intensity including: walking, biking, jogging, movement classes such as yoga, movnat, dance or pilates. Some exercise should be high-intensity because it improves stress tolerance. This includes: any aerobic activity where you are breathing hard, HIIT circuits, challenging or new movements (do you find box jumps stressful? because I do), and heavy weightlifting.
4. Consume less Sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Yes, these all mess with our hormones. So, try less and see how it feels.
5. Smile and Laugh! I’m serious here. Our bodies find smiling and laughing to be comforting 🙂