Cortisol Levels and Anxiety: How Stress Affects Your Mental Health

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

The Link Between Stress and Mental Health

Key Points:

Cortisol and Mental Health: How Stress Affects Your Well-Being

Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays a vital role in our body’s response to stress. It helps us mobilize energy reserves and heighten our alertness in times of perceived danger. However, too much or too little cortisol can have significant negative effects on our overall well-being.

In this article, we’ll explain the interplay between cortisol and anxiety, discuss how cortisol is related to your mental health, and explore the signs of both low and high cortisol levels. We’ll also provide some tips for managing cortisol levels and improving your overall mental health, well-being, and energy and ability to cope with stress.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands, which are small glands located on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it plays a vital role in our body’s response to stress.

Cortisol is involved in regulating a variety of functions, including metabolism, immune response, blood pressure, and the sleep-wake cycle. In times of stress, cortisol is released into the bloodstream, providing a surge of energy and enhancing our well-being and our ability to cope with the perceived threat.

The HPA axis

The HPA axis is a complex system of glands and hormones that regulate the body’s response to stress. The HPA axis is activated when we encounter a stressful situation. This triggers the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol then has a number of effects on the body, including:

How does cortisol relate to your mental health?

Chronic or prolonged stress can lead to persistently high cortisol levels, which can negatively impact physical health, mental health, and emotional well-being. Elevated cortisol levels have been associated with increased anxiety, irritability, difficulty coping with stressors, cognitive problems, and mood disorders like depression.

Cortisol also plays a crucial role in regulating sleep-wake cycles. Disruptions in cortisol levels, such as elevated levels in the evening or reduced levels in the morning, can result in sleep disturbances and contribute to mood disorders like depression.

How should cortisol rise/fall over a 24-hour period?

Cortisol levels naturally follow a 24-hour diurnal rhythm, meaning they fluctuate throughout the day and night in a predictable pattern. Typically, cortisol levels are highest in the morning upon waking, typically around 6 to 8 a.m., and gradually decrease as the day progresses and into the evening. This surge of cortisol helps us wake up, feel alert, and prepare for the activities of the day. Throughout the day, cortisol levels gradually decline. It reaches its lowest point in the late evening or during sleep.

This rhythm is influenced by the body’s internal biological clock and external cues, such as light and darkness. Disruptions to the circadian rhythm of cortisol, such as irregular sleep patterns, shift work, or chronic stress, can have significant implications for mental health and well-being. For example, studies have shown that people who work night shifts are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than people who work during the day.

Tips for managing cortisol levels

There are a number of things you can do to manage cortisol levels and improve your overall mental health, well-being, and energy and ability to cope with stress. These include:

Now that we know how cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day and some general tips for managing cortisol levels, let’s take a look at some of the signs of high cortisol.

The Signs and Causes of High and Low Cortisol

In this section, we will discuss the signs and causes of both high and low cortisol levels. We will also provide some tips for managing cortisol levels for optimal health.

Signs of High Cortisol

Some common signs of high cortisol levels include:

Causes of High Cortisol

There are many factors that can contribute to high cortisol levels, including:

Signs of Low Cortisol

Low cortisol levels, also known as adrenal insufficiency, can manifest in a variety of ways. Some of the most common symptoms include:

Causes of Low Cortisol

Here are some of the most common causes of low cortisol, starting with how an unhealthy diet, nutrient deficiencies, and lack of exercise can all lead to low cortisol levels.

Other factors that can contribute to low cortisol levels include:

Concluding remarks

Understanding the impact of high and low cortisol levels is crucial for recognizing the connection between anxiety and our body’s stress response. High cortisol levels can contribute to persistent anxiety, sleep disturbances, and mood changes, while low cortisol levels may lead to chronic fatigue, weakness, and difficulty coping with stress. Being aware of how to recognize these signs will help you better understand how stress affects your mental health.

Remember, prioritizing self-care, seeking support when needed, and adopting healthy coping mechanisms are essential to managing anxiety and maintaining optimal mental health. There are many different ways to manage anxiety, and what works for one person may not work for another. It is important to find what works best for you and to be patient with yourself.

If you are struggling with anxiety, there are many resources available to help you. You can talk to your doctor, a therapist, or a counselor. Did you know there are also some great herbs for managing cortisol levels?

Some of my favorites are:

The Anxiety Breakthrough Program is a great resource for people who are looking for help managing anxiety. The program provides evidence-based strategies that can help you reduce anxiety and improve your mental health including details on herbs for cortisol balancing, supplements for adrenal health, and natural remedies for anxiety.

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This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.