Cortisol is a hormone that sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap. When people think “cortisol,” they think “stress.” When they think “stress,” they think “unhealthy.”
But in actuality, cortisol plays a number of different roles in your body, all of which are important for your functioning.
Indeed, your stress response is not a “bad” thing, either. To a large degree, stress is something nobody can avoid in life, so having a healthy response to it can help us weather the physical and emotional challenges we face.
Your adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol in response to stress or waking up in the morning.
Proper production of cortisol helps to regulate:
When you wake up in the morning, a spike of cortisol helps you to become alert.
That said, there are some people who do not experience a cortisol spike when they wake up, and who may continue to feel tired (this is a pattern found in some studies of autistic populations, for example, who may have reverse circadian cortisol patterns).
Ideally, you want your stress response to be adaptive. If your stress response gets “stuck,” you can find yourself with problems.
For example, Cleveland Clinic explains, “In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. However, if you have consistently high levels of cortisol, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system.”
As you might guess, chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to elevated blood pressure and blood sugar.
Along with chronic stress, there are also some health conditions that can cause your body to chronically over- or under-produce cortisol. If you are concerned about high or low levels of cortisol, the best thing you can do is see a healthcare provider.
But if you just want to maintain healthy cortisol production, there are some lifestyle changes you can try making.
A healthy diet that is rich in magnesium can help support healthy cortisol production. So can regular exercise, a consistent sleep schedule, and taking the time to do activities you enjoy and surround yourself with people who you feel supported by. If there are toxic influences in your life, consider whether you can reduce your exposure to them.
Also be alert to beliefs and assumptions you have that might distort your perceptions and amp up your stress. Sometimes we react to situations with more stress than is necessary. For example, low self-esteem might cause you to fear you cannot cope with a challenge, which could result in an unnatural amount of stress.
Now you know a little more about the roles of cortisol in your body. Our relationships with cortisol and stress can be complicated. But if you can maintain a healthy stress response, it should help you to navigate life’s more unsettled seas.
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