When we hear the term ‘cortisol’, we easily associate it with stress. However, despite the fact that it’s a so-called ‘stress hormone’, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad hormone. Our body needs it. But due to 21st-century lifestyle and diet, our cortisol levels can easily get astray leading to unbalanced levels.
Vogue Singapore consulted with leading experts about the cortisol-induced issue’s signs and symptoms and discussed science-backed ways to help balance your cortisol levels.
What is cortisol and what would an imbalance mean for the body?
Cortisol has many roles: from helping to control your mood, motivation, and fear to boosting your immune system and metabolism. But what is it? US-based Dr William Li, physician, scientist, and author of Eat To Beat Disease explains:
“Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands, two small triangular organs that sit on top of each kidney. Cortisol affects every tissue and organ in your body, and it is called a ‘stress hormone’, meaning stressful situations or anticipation of stress will cause your adrenal glands to pump out cortisol,” Dr Li, also the president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, and author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, tells Vogue Singapore.
Cortisol is like a built-in alarm system in your body that alerts or prepares your body during stressful, exciting, dangerous, or threatening situations—a “fight or flight” moment.
The adrenal glands start pumping out cortisol whenever you find yourself in these situations. It lasts a couple of minutes, as adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
However, when you are constantly undergoing chronic stress, it can take a toll on your physical and mental health leading to a cortisol imbalance.
Dr Rachel Jones, UK-based consultant psychiatrist and bioidentical hormone therapy expert, adds: “When cortisol rises because of a high amount of stress and for a prolonged period of time, other hormones such as thyroid stimulating hormone, insulin and sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone) may deplete.”
“It may lead to a whole array of physical and mental symptoms such as bloating, low mood, anxiety, irritability, brain fog, poor memory, night sweats, hot flushes, headaches, hair loss, dry hair and skin, accelerated ageing, reduced libido, aching joints, among others”.
Why is it important to keep cortisol levels in check?
“Cortisol levels are released in a circadian manner. In other words, levels fluctuate throughout the day and are also affected by activity,” explains Dr Ng Jen Min Ben, Singapore-based endocrinologist and endocrine specialist.
Adding: “The most common cause of irregular cortisol levels is actually a result of our irregular lifestyle and diet which can cause prolonged elevation of cortisol levels which in the long term, may lead to the adrenal gland being exhausted and unable to produce sufficient levels of cortisol for normal daily activity. This can affect patients as it results in gradual low energy levels, low mood, and poor concentration.”
What happens if you have a cortisol imbalance?
“Too much cortisol causes high blood pressure, weight gain including puffy face and larger waist size, purple stretch marks on your belly, abnormal hair growth, brain fog, easy bruising, fatigue, muscle weakness,” Dr Li says. “Too little cortisol can also result in fatigue, in addition to weight loss, poor appetite, low blood pressure, light-headedness, skin darkening, hair loss, irritability, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.”
Expert-approved ways to balance your cortisol levels.
“Since cortisol is a stress hormone, the best way to lower cortisol is to reduce stress.” Dr Li shares his practical tips to balance your cortisol levels.
Get eight hours of quality sleep
“The body is stressed because it is sleep deprived and this wreaks havoc on your hormonal balance, including cortisol. Avoid blue light at bedtime from your mobile and television.”
Avoid caffeine and alcohol
“Both increase stress levels and the secretion of cortisol. They also interfere with getting a good quality of sleep.”
Find time to get active and exercise
“Regular physical activity, even walking 20 to 30 minutes, can lower your stress and cortisol levels.”