In health circles, cortisol is also known as the ‘fat tummy hormone’. It’s produced by our bodies, and in excess it could be the reason behind that spare tyre.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is important to your body. During times of stress, cortisol converts proteins into usable energy. Elevated cortisol levels for short periods is okay, but in the long term high levels can be harmful to your health.
To tell whether you have elevated levels, see how many of these symptoms you have:
1. You’re not sleeping well
Cortisol levels are supposed to drop at bedtime, but you could find yourself getting a second wind just as you’re supposed to be winding down for some all-important rest. Alternatively, you sleep well but wake up tired.
2. You’re gaining weight, even though you exercise and eat well most of the time.
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3. You get colds easily
An excess of cortisol compromises your body’s self-healing powers. A suppressed immune system means you get every bug going around.
4. You crave unhealthy foods, especially sugar
Cortisol raises your blood sugar levels. High glucose then spikes your insulin levels, sending your blood sugar levels into freefall, causing – yes, you guessed it – more sugar cravings.
5. You’re susceptible to headaches and backaches
Elevated cortisol levels lead to higher levels of prolactin over the long term, making you more pain sensitive.
6. You never feel like sex
The higher your cortisol, the lower your libido.
7. You have gut problems
In addition to fat around the middle, you may also suffer from ulcers, nausea, heartburn, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, colitis, flatulence and bloating.
8. You feel anxious
A constant state of fight or flight causes your heart to pump more blood, but it’s diverted away from digestion, which slows down, and away from arms and legs. This puts dangerous strain on your heart. In addition to feeling hyped up, you can also feel panicked, jittery and paranoid.
9. You’re depressed
Cortisol suppresses levels of serotonin (the happy hormone).
10. You have high blood pressure; that is a BP above 120mmHg/80mmHg.
If you’re concerned about your cortisol levels, talk to your GP about urine, blood or saliva tests.
How to take control of your cortisol levels naturally:
1. Get the right amount of sleep
Keep a consistent sleep schedule, avoid caffeine in the evening, avoid sleep interruptions and get seven to eight hours of sleep daily to keep cortisol in a normal rhythm.
2. Exercise, but not too much
Depending on the intensity of exercise, it can increase or decrease cortisol. Exercise decreases cortisol at night. Intense exercise increases cortisol in the short term due to stress on the body, but still decreases it the following night.
3. Learn to recognise stressful thinking
‘Stress mindfulness’ emphasises self-awareness of stressful thoughts and signs of body tension. Becoming more aware of stress and its triggers is the first step to successfully coping with stress.
4. Learn to relax
Many relaxation techniques are proven to lower cortisol. Examples include deep breathing, yoga and tai chi, music and having a massage.
5. Have fun
Tending to your own happiness will help keep cortisol down. Taking up a hobby, spending time outdoors and laughing can all help.
6. Maintain healthy relationships
Relationships with friends and family can lead to both happiness and to stress. Spend time with those you love and learn to forgive and manage conflict for better emotional and physical health.
7. Take care of a pet
Several studies show that interacting with an animal companion reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels. Pets also benefit from positive relationships with their humans.
8. Be your best self
Resolving guilt improves life satisfaction and cortisol levels. This may involve changing habits, forgiving others or learning to forgive yourself.
9. Tend to your spirituality
For those with spiritual inclinations, developing faith and participating in prayer can help control cortisol. Whether you’re spiritual or not, performing acts of kindness can also improve your cortisol levels.
10. Eat healthy food
Nutrition can influence cortisol for better or for worse. Cortisol-reducing foods include dark chocolate, tea and soluble fiber. Avoiding excess sugar consumption may also help keep your levels down.
11. Take certain supplements
Studies have proven that at least two nutritional supplements can lower cortisol levels. Fish oil supplements and an Asian herbal medicine called ashwagandha have both been shown to help reduce cortisol levels.