Cortisol is a crucial hormone that regulates numerous bodily processes and is essential for our survival
By: Kimberly Rodrigues
The latest TikTok wellness trend suggests that high cortisol levels are to blame for a range of symptoms, including food cravings, weight gain, fatigue, poor concentration, and disrupted sleep. While cortisol does indeed affect these bodily functions, it’s not the only hormone or factor involved.
Thyroid hormones, appetite hormones, and sex hormones, as well as diet and physical activity, also play a significant role.
Additionally, cortisol has many other biological functions beyond its effects on metabolism and sleep. It is a crucial hormone that regulates numerous bodily processes and is essential for our survival.
Many of the symptoms blamed on cortisol may actually be caused by chronic stress or depression, as these conditions are closely linked.
As the main “stress hormone” in our bodies, cortisol can get a bad reputation.
However, it’s important to note that cortisol isn’t inherently bad for us. In fact, it plays a crucial role in our body’s stress response and helps us adapt to challenging situations.
Rather than blaming all our health issues on cortisol, it’s important to consider the broader context of our lifestyle and mental health, as well as the complex interplay of hormones and biological processes in our body.
The human body’s response to stress has been shaped over time as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react rapidly to perceived threats. Whether the stress is physical or psychological, it triggers the stress response.
The initial response to sudden danger is the fight-or-flight response, which causes a rapid release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream. This results in an instant increase in heart rate and breathing rate, preparing us to act quickly to escape or avoid danger.
However, the effects of the adrenaline response are short-lived.
When stress persists for minutes or longer, the adrenal glands release cortisol. Its primary role is to increase blood glucose levels, providing the body with energy.
Cortisol influences the liver, muscle, fat, and pancreas, causing an increase in glucose production and mobilisation of stored glucose. This helps to supply the brain with glucose, increasing mental alertness, and the muscles, enabling movement.
In a healthy stress response, cortisol rises quickly in response to the stress and then rapidly returns to baseline levels once the stress has subsided.
But while cortisol is an important hormone for responding to stress, chronic stress and ongoing increased cortisol secretion can have negative effects on our health.
Dysregulated cortisol secretion can occur when cortisol remains high even in the absence of an immediate stress, and it can take weeks for cortisol levels to return to normal after chronic stress.
Emerging evidence suggests that chronic stress and dysregulated cortisol may contribute to the development of depression. In fact, research has shown that people with depression have higher cortisol levels on average, which is associated with more negative thinking and lower quality of life.
The symptoms often associated with high cortisol, such as weight gain, fatigue, and insomnia, may actually be caused by stress, depression, or anxiety.
Interestingly, high cortisol can also increase the activity of adrenaline, making us more reactive and prone to fight-or-flight responses.
However, some of the symptoms associated with high cortisol may actually reflect low cortisol levels. It’s important to note that low cortisol levels can also be a result of chronic stress and past exposure to high cortisol, especially in childhood.
In fact, individuals with a long history of depression are more likely to have low cortisol levels than high ones. This can lead to symptoms such as fatigue and weight gain, particularly in women, and has been linked to the satiety hormone leptin.
Despite the claims made on TikTok, it’s difficult to determine whether your cortisol levels are balanced or not without laboratory analysis of blood, urine or saliva samples. This is not something that is routinely done and is typically only considered if a doctor suspects a disorder in cortisol production, which is rare.
Furthermore, cortisol levels can vary significantly throughout the day and night. One of cortisol’s most important roles is in regulating the circadian rhythm of the body which are set by the hypothalamus in the brain to match the light-dark cycle.
The adrenal glands release cortisol in response to these signals, with levels highest in the morning and lowest in the afternoon and evening.
In the morning, higher levels of cortisol stimulate wakefulness, energy, and physical activity, while lower levels at night encourage restorative functions and sleep.
If you are experiencing cortisol dysregulation, there are steps you can take to maintain healthy levels. Practices like meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioural therapy can reduce the reactivity of the stress response.
Exercise during the day and good sleep habits can also help to lower chronic stress and high cortisol.
Additionally, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet can provide your body with the necessary nutrients for good hormone health.
(With inputs from Reuters/ The Conversation)