Reducing cortisol and stress to improve mental health

Reducing cortisol and stress to improve mental health

This month on the blog we are taking a look at mental health. Something that comes up a lot at the retreat is the topic of stress, which can then lead to questions about cortisol and the impact that both have on our health. All of us will experience stress at some point in our lives, however for some, stress seems almost a constant occurrence. Stress can directly affect not only our mental health, but also the health of our body. In this article we are going to take a brief look at cortisol, to see what it is, what is the link to stress, how it affects our health and consider actions you can take at home to normalise the amount of cortisol in your system.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone, produced by the adrenal glands, and is often called the stress hormone. The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system, responsible for producing the hormones that regulate the activity of our cells and organs. This includes our metabolism, body growth and sexual growth and reproduction.

Cortisol is required by the body, in small doses. It is released from the adrenal glands and travels through the blood. It helps with regulating blood pressure, plays a role in how the body uses sugar (glucose) and supports a healthy immune system. Short bursts of cortisol give us a boost in energy. You will probably have heard the phrase “fight or flight”? When we need to react quickly – for example to fight “danger” or run very quickly away in flight – cortisol is one hormone that gives us the boost required (and prepares our body) to take these actions. A problem occurs when large amounts of cortisol are produced by the body, or when it is produced for a sustained period of time. This can happen when we feel stressed.

Cortisol levels fluctuate

Normally, in healthy people, cortisol levels peak first thing in the morning (after we wake up). Levels then drop during the day, so it is at a low level by night time, ready for sleep.

If we experience something that we deem is a threat, cortisol is produced and released into our blood stream. Once the danger has passed, cortisol drops back down to normal. When cortisol levels are high, this hormone “switches off” some of the bodily functions, like digestion, cleaning and healing, which are thought to be less important, so that our energy reserves can deal with the “danger”. Once the “danger” has passed, cortisol levels drop, and these bodily functions can start again.

Prolonged stress means that the natural pattern is disrupted. For some people who experience chronic stress, cortisol levels remain high for the whole day.

Cortisol and stress

Although nowadays we do not have many predators to fight or flee from, there are many things that can cause us to feel stressed. Money worries, taking an exam, children playing up, parents aging and getting sick, a dog barking at us on our morning walk, high workloads, pressure from the boss, societal pressures to look and be “perfect” as just some examples of modern-day hassles that can raise our stress (and cortisol) levels. Events that are thought of as “positive”, like getting married, organising a family meal or getting a new job, can also trigger stress.

The problem for our health occurs if we feel like we are constantly fighting things off. Our body perceives we are under threat, and responds by producing cortisol, and keeps producing it with no let up. This ongoing production of cortisol disrupts the normal hormone balance in our body, which, if left unchecked, can lead to:

  • Weight gain
  • Digestive problems
  • Feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Reduction in memory and concentration

Cortisol, moods and depression

It has been suggested in the scientific literature, that too much stress can lead to depression in susceptible individuals. Some studies have found that people with depression often have high levels of cortisol in their blood. They also often usually have low amounts of serotonin – otherwise referred to as the feel-good hormone. The exact mechanism still seems a little unclear. However, taking steps to normalise your cortisol, to reduce stress is certainly worth a go if you experience depression or mood swings.

Stress, cortisol and immune function

In short bursts, cortisol supports your immune system. However, when the body is chronically stressed, and cortisol levels remain high for a sustained period of time, immune function can be suppressed. The immune system is responsible for managing inflammation in the body, as well as fighting off infection. Too much cortisol can increase inflammation. The exact relationship is complicated. The summary is, reduce stress for improved immune function.

Stress, cortisol and weight gain

In the short term, stress can switch off your appetite. However, in the longer-term stress causes more cortisol to be released. Cortisol increases appetite, meaning you want to eat more, which, if you are looking to manage or lose weight, is not good! Stress also appears to affect what you want to eat – there is a tendency to reach for processed, fatty or sugary foods. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) may play a role in this. You can read more about ghrelin in our article: what is the hunger hormone? Find hormone balance through food.

Stress, cortisol and sleep

Prolonged stress can have a negative impact on your sleep. During sleep, our body repairs itself, carries out essential cleansing and detox and generally gets ready to deal with the events of the coming day. So, if we do not get enough good quality sleep, these essential functions are interrupted. High levels of stress increase the amount of cortisol in the blood, meaning we are on alert making it harder to relax and go to sleep. This can create a vicious cycle, which impacts upon all our hormones.

We can be left feeling fatigued, with the knock-on effects of feeling less motivation for exercise and increased likelihood for eating junk or fast food. This can all lead to weight gain.

Stress, cortisol and health

Researchers are investigating whether chronic stress, with prolonged high cortisol levels, can leave you more susceptible to chronic diseases. Our body is a delicate balance, and when one part is out of balance, it means other parts of our body are affected.

Find out your cortisol level

If you are concerned about the level of cortisol in your body, you can ask your doctor or health professional to run a test. This is usually a blood test, but cortisol (and other hormones) can also be measured in saliva. It is important to consider the time of day for testing – if a doctor is concerned you have high cortisol, they will probably test you on an evening. Saliva tests can be done a few times across the day, to assess whether your levels fluctuate naturally.

Actions to reduce stress and normalise cortisol levels

Here at La Crisalida, we believe that our body works as a balance, with all the systems of the body looking to work together, to find balance. Therefore, there are many different ways to reduce stress and normalise your cortisol levels.

If you are concerned that you have high levels of stress and cortisol, then do not despair! There are lots of things you can do to help yourself. Here are just a few of our suggestions.

  • Follow a juice detox
    The liver has a role in regulating our hormones. It is the organ responsible for cleaning and detoxing our body. By juicing for three days you give the body lots of fantastic nutrients, whilst at the same time removing some of the items that causes your body stress. Your body finds it hard to deal with things like caffeine, chocolate, processed sugars, processed foods, smoking and alcohol. If you want to try this at home, we have lots of juice articles on our health and wellbeing blog. Or, come and try a juice detox retreat. Remember, drink plenty of water, do some light exercise and make sure you have plenty of good quality rest and sleep time.
  • Practice meditation and yoga
    Meditation and yoga are both great tools to help you to learn to relax. By becoming present in the moment, in your body, it gives you some time off, away from all the worries or things that are bothering you.
  • Get sufficient sleep
    Build healthy bedtime routine to ensure you get sufficient sleep. Switch off the mobile and electronic devices one hour before sleep. Take a bath or a relaxing shower before bed. Make sure your bedroom is the right temperature and is relaxing. Move the TV out of your bedroom – watching the latest thriller will not help to get a full nights sleep!
  • Learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life
    Sometimes we can change our lives to reduce the things that stress us. This is not always possible, so the thing you can control, is how to deal with things that stress you. One way you can do this is by releasing blocked emotions. Read Johns Life makeover article: emotional release visualisation to improve your mental health.
  • Do something you love every day
    It could be something small, like picking up a bunch of flowers, having a bath, or singing a song in the shower. Book a regular massage, go to the art gallery or theatre, sit by the sea. Think of the things that make you smile, and aim to do one every day.
  • Social support
    Asking for help when you need it, speaking to someone who can listen and support you, can help to reduce stress levels. Read more in our article what are the top 10 activities for mental health.
  • Eat a healthy diet
    Eating a healthy diet can help with hormone balance and make sure that your liver (and other organs) are functioning well. We follow a plant-based diet here at the retreat, with no added salt. For more tips read our article: eating a plant-based diet.
  • Curb your caffeine intake
    Reduce or cut our coffee, black tea and sugary drinks that contain caffeine. Instead, try chamomile or Tila teas. These teas have a calming effect on the body. For more tips, read our earlier article: say no to caffeine – natural ways to boost your energy.
  • Consider taking a multivitamin supplement
    B vitamins are especially helpful to support your body if you feel fatigued, or experience high and/or prolonged stress. Vitamin B5 is particularly good to support the adrenals
  • Take regular exercise
    Getting out and about doing regular exercise is said to help manage and reduce stress. Find what works best for you and schedule it into your diary. Walks in nature are fantastic for this, as you can also boost your vitamin D levels, naturally.

Book a detox and weightloss retreat

I hope that you have found this article useful and practical. If you wish to experience a juice detox, then come to the retreat and try a detox and weightloss retreat. I wish you all the best.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).