How cortisol affects your ability to stay calm
📅 February 16, 2021•
⏱️4 min read
The ability to maintain your sense of calm is one of the most important things you can do for your health. And we know this hasn’t been an easy time to stay calm, or manage our stress well.
But there is something you can do about it. Cortisol is one of the main biomarkers we look at, and track, for stress. But how do you know if your cortisol’s reaching a point where it’s compromising your health?
Let’s start by talking about what happens inside your body and mind when your stress response is activated. Anxiety and stress are instinctual self-preservation responses mediated by your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system) to help keep you alive. If you perceive a threat, whether it’s a lion chasing you, or a threat of humiliation from the presentation you’re about to deliver, the body responds by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate the multiple pathways needed to survive.
Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline, which lead to increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Your pupils dilate to sharpen sight. Blood flow is shunted away from your digestive track toward your heart, lungs, and muscles. Cortisol stimulates your liver to make glucose (sugar), and stimulates your pancreas to make insulin to bring your sugar down. Blood flow is shunted away from your neocortex (the part of your brain involved in critical thinking, reasoning, and more) toward your reptilian brain because you don’t want to be solving a philosophical question when you’re running from that lion.
These natural responses are all great if you’re actually running from a lion, but all too often, the anxiety response is over-activated in typical Western cultures. Anxiety disorders affect about 15% of Americans and can lead to debilitating symptoms. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, too much stress can reduce your overall quality of life, dampening your ability to relax and enjoy your friends, family, work, and free time. Once the stress response system is activated, it has you, for a minimum of 30 minutes.
Cortisol is one of the main biomarkers for stress and is one of the major hormones released from your adrenal glands during the fight-or-flight (sympathetic nervous system) response. Which is why you might see abnormal cortisol levels in stress-related illnesses. For example, in a controlled study observing disturbances in the circadian pattern of 25 adults, they found a connection between abnormal cortisol secretion and anxiety and depression.
Elevated levels can lead to irritability, fatigue, in addition to increased belly fat, blood sugar, and blood pressure. When people are over-stressed for long periods of time, the adrenals can burn out, and lose the ability to produce enough cortisol when we need it. So stress can also lead to low cortisol levels. This paper reviewed studies on how the adrenal gland can become less active in some stress-related states. These low cortisol levels may persist and contribute to stress-related disorders like fibromyalgia, asthma, and arthritis. Feeling more calm may be a great tool to prevent disease.
The good news is that there are many evidence-based lifestyle changes that you can do to improve your sense of calm, and as you do these, you can track your cortisol levels to make sure they are working for you.
For example, in a placebo-controlled trial with 50 subjects recruited from a university, they found deep breathing therapy reduced stress and cortisol levels.
Other evidence suggests that meditation and yin yoga are also especially effective in improving stress resilience (and cortisol levels). In this study, 20 participants went through an 8 week course in mindfulness meditation, and cortisol levels were tracked before and after the course. They found that those with high levels of cortisol in the beginning had significantly lower cortisol levels at the end, and also reported improvements in sleep quality and mindfulness.
By tracking your cortisol levels with Vessel, you’ll not only find out if your cortisol is high or low, but you’ll get research-backed recommendations that can help improve your cortisol levels like yin yoga, mediation, cardio, even hanging out with someone. We’ll tell you how many minutes and sessions you need, depending on which activity you choose. Get started with one of our membership plans today.
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Heim C, Ehlert U, Hellhammer DH. The potential role of hypocortisolism in the pathophysiology of stress-related bodily disorders. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2000 Jan;25(1):1-35. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4530(99)00035-9. PMID: 10633533.