General Anxiety Disorder - Panic Attacks - Generalized Depression

Cortisol & Stress

Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the following functions and more:

  • Proper glucose metabolism
  • Regulation of blood pressure
  • Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
  • Immune function
  • Inflammatory response

Normally, it’s present in the body at higher levels in the morning, and at its lowest at night. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:

  • A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
  • Heightened memory functions
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Lower sensitivity to pain
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body

While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response to be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.

Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:

  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
  • Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, the development of metabolic syndrome, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems!

To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. The following have been found by many to be very helpful in relaxing the body and mind, aiding the body in maintaining healthy cortisol levels:

  • Guided Imagery
  • Journaling
  • Self-Hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Listening to Music
  • Breathing Exercises
  • Meditation
  • Sex
  • Other Techniques

Cortisol secretion varies among individuals. People are biologically ‘wired’ to react differently to stress. One person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. Studies have also shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress also tend to eat more food, and food that is higher in carbohydrates than people who secrete less cortisol. If you’re more sensitive to stress, it’s especially important for you to learn stress management techniques and maintain a low-stress lifestyle.



Effects of Excessive Cortisol and Stress

Chronic stress causes the adrenal gland to release excessive amounts of cortisol. This can contribute to a cascade of unhealthy consequences. The homeostatic balance of hormones becomes disrupted and sometimes, just as diabetics become less responsive to insulin, people can become less responsive to cortisol, creating seemingly paradoxical responses. While cortisol normally heightens your sympathetic nervous system, for example increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and alertness, those who suffer adrenal fatigue feel tired and drained. Chronic excessive cortisol production causes numerous health problems, including lowered immune system functioning, increased vulnerability to stroke, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, disrupted sleep, fatigue, loss of the capacity to generate new neurons, impaired memory and learning, depression, anxiety, insulin resistance and more.



When to Eat

Stabilize your insulin levels to help stabilize your cortisol. When you go through cycles of low blood sugar, followed by periods of high blood sugar, which then trigger the release of insulin, you contribute to emotional and hormonal stress responses. Eat small meals five or six times a day to maintain stable blood sugar and insulin levels. Eat your first meal within an hour of awaking, and then eat a combination of protein and complex carbohydrates — such as vegetables, fruit or whole-grain products — every three or four hours.


Avoid overloading on simple carbohydrates, such as starches and sugars, including sweet baked goods, snack foods, candy, ice cream, mashed potatoes, processed white bread, pasta and pizza. These carbohydrate-rich foods help you feel better briefly, as they increase serotonin, a brain chemical that enhances mood. Unfortunately, the effects are short-lived as the simple carbohydrates are quickly released as glucose in your bloodstream, triggering a flood of insulin, which leads to a sudden drop in blood sugar and the release of cortisol. Instead, eat meals that include complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice and whole-grain products combined with lean protein, such as skinless chicken or turkey breast. Include good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as deep-water fish, in your diet. The protein stabilizes insulin and sates your appetite while the healthy fatty acids helps mute your stress response and enhance your mood, among other numerous health benefits. Consider using a fish-oil supplement. Incorporate other sources of antioxidants into your diet, such as foods high in vitamin c, including kale, spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruits, papaya and strawberries.


Avoid sweet, sugary drinks, such as fruit juice, full-sugar soda and sweetened coffees and teas. Also, avoid or minimize caffeine, so take it easy on coffee, chocolate drinks and caffeinated energy drinks. Instead, drink antioxidant-rich green tea, vegetable juices, water and herbal teas.


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