The Cortisol Connection – How Stress Affects Your Whole Body

The cortisol connection

Cortisol is our main stress hormone, and it's a life-saver when we're in danger. However it can also have a hugely negative impact on the rest of our body if we don't manage it.

And these days with ever increasing levels of stress in our lives, it's more important than ever to manage our cortisol levels. It can mess up our hormones (especially through perimenopause!), digestion, brain function, energy levels, mood, sex drive and importantly it can weaken our immune systems at a time when we need them to be strong.

You can watch the video;

Or you can listen to the Podcast episode;

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol's job is to keep us alive, so it’s pretty damn important! It’s released from the adrenal glands to wake us up in the morning, keep us alert during the day and help us manage any dangers or threats that come our way.

Stress hormones are released to;

  • raise blood pressure
  • pump sugar in to the blood so that your muscles and cells have the energy to run or fight
  • suppress other systems to conserve energy

The Fight Or Flight Response

When our brains think we might be in danger (in the old days a lion attack, these days ANYTHING). Our ‘fight or flight’ response would kick in – the brain would send a message to the adrenals to release adrenaline and cortisol

These days, not so many lions….But plenty of modern day stresses like pandemic viruses, job losses, isolation, relationship issues and lockdowns ! 

Unfortunately we only have ONE stress response. That’s the ‘fight or flight’ one that evolved to keep us alive.

Why our stress response can be problematic;

  • it’s designed to be temporary – once you escaped or killed the lion, you could rest in your cave and recover. We can’t escape from our modern day stresses – there is no rest & recover time – it’s unrelenting
  • all that sugar that is mobilized for energy to fight or run from your source of stress isn’t being used up (unless you are exercising after each meal) – so it gets stored as FAT – usually around the middle where it can be easily accessed
  • cortisol has priority over everything. When you are in danger, all your reserves are diverted to survival mechanisms. That means no energy for;

Our bodies have evolved and adapted in many ways since caveman times, but our adrenal stress response is exactly the same.

Effects on other hormones

Cortisol is the life saving hormone, so it takes priority over all the other hormones –

  • Thyroid – when stress is prolonged, cortisol can affect our thyroid function. Thyroid hormones ensure every cell has the energy it needs to function properly. When we are low, everything struggles and we can suffer sluggish symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, memory loss, weight gain, constipation, hair loss, poor nails, PMS, low mood, low libido.
  • Insulin – when cortisol raises blood sugar, insulin is needed to take the sugar to our cells for use as energy. The more insulin around the more fat storing is likely!
  • Oestrogen/progesterone – you need a good level of progesterone to balance out the effects of oestrogen. Cortisol and progesterone are made from the same mother hormone pregnenolone. So when the body needs cortisol, the production of progesterone gets sacrificed, leaving higher levels of oestrogen in your system. This can result in PMS, bloating, breast tenderness, heavy/painful periods, and increased risk of fibroids, endometriosis and breast/ovarian cancer.

Other effects;

  • Brain function – stress can increase brain fog, memory loss, focus, concentration and creativity.
  • Digestion – too much cortisol can affect your gut lining and gut flora balance, reducing your protection against microbes that you don’t want in your system.
  • Immune system – cortisol can disrupt the body's inflammatory response, which is key to controlling infection.

How to Reset Your Cortisol

1. Reduce your stressors

  • Identify your particular stressors – everyone has different ones! Go through the list of potential sources of stress and tick any that may be a problem for you.
  • Put a plan in place to reduce or eliminate them. You may need some expert help to do this, and it may take some time, but if you don’t go for the source, you will always be dealing with the consequences.
  • Practice saying ‘no’ to people! If you’re a ‘people pleaser’ you may be taking on too much just to be nice. You can’t please everyone, and you need to prioritise your own self care.

2. Support your adrenals

  • Switch off more – counteract your flight or flight response by switching on your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & relax mode). To do this, you need to slow right down;
    • Deep belly breathing
    • Meditation or mindfulness
    • Yoga, pilates or something that makes you concentrate on one thing only
    • Getting into nature – walking, gardening, jogging, cycling – whatever gets you outside and smelling the roses!
  • Sleep – sleeping is our natural anti-stress remedy. And of course it’s more difficult when we’re stressed. A tricky one, yes, but if you can improve your sleep you will naturally improve your cortisol balance.
    • Keep your room very dark – artificial light impairs our production of melatonin, our sleep hormone
    • Keep gadgets out of your room
    • Relax before bed (no checking emails or watching a thriller right before bed)
    • Take a warm bath in Epsom Salts (rich in Magnesium)
    • Calming herbal teas can be helpful (eg chamomile, licorice, valerian)
    • Apps can be helpful (Pzizz, Calm, Headspace)
  • Restore nutrients – the adrenal glands use up a lot of nutrients to keep pumping out stress hormones. The main ones are;
    • B vitamins – found in oats, nuts, seeds, leafy veg, organic meat, fish, dairy
    • Vitamin C – eat a rainbow of fruit and veg, especially bell peppers, kiwi fruit, citrus fruit, green leafy veg
    • Magnesium – dark green leafy veg, nuts, seeds, brown rice, beans, avocado, dark chocolate, many fruits & veggies
  • Supplement – in therapeutic doses, supplements can work very quickly to restore balance (always check with your doctor or health practitioner before starting any new supplements);
    • A good quality multivitamin (with active forms of B vitamins) – especially B5 and B6
    • Vitamin C
    • Magnesium (citrate or glycinate are better absorbed forms)
    • Herbal adaptogens – rhodiola, ashwaghanda, holy Basil, lemon balm

Cortisol Testing

Symptoms however are just an indication. Testing can be done to identify where your cortisol levels are, and therefore how to best get them back in to balance.

The test we do routinely for clients is a urine test. It measures your cortisol output over 4 points during the day which gives a good indication of how your adrenals are functioning, and where they may need some support.

Contact us for a free discovery call to see how best we can help you.

Final Word

It’s so important that as women we start to prioritise ourselves. We often come way down the list, but if we’re not looking after ourselves, we’re no good to anyone else!

Stay well. xx

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