The Link Between Stress and Mental Health
- Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays an important role in our body’s response to stress.
- Cortisol levels follow a 24-hour cycle, rising in the morning and declining throughout the day.
- High cortisol levels can lead to anxiety, sleep disturbances, and mood changes.
- Low cortisol levels can cause fatigue, weakness, difficulty coping with stress, and other physical and psychological symptoms.
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:
- Increasing the availability of glucose in the bloodstream
- Suppressing non-essential functions
- Increasing blood flow to the muscles and brain
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:
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for regulating cortisol levels. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga, can help to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to reduce inflammation and improve overall health.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve mood. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
- Manage your time effectively. Feeling overwhelmed can lead to stress. Learn to manage your time effectively and avoid taking on too much at once.
- Learn to say no. It is okay to say no to requests that you do not have time for or that will add to your stress.
- Seek professional help if needed. If you are struggling to manage your stress or cortisol levels, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor.
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:
- Persistent and excessive feelings of anxiety or worry
- Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
- Increased appetite and cravings, particularly for unhealthy, high-calorie foods
- Weight gain, especially in the chest and abdominal area
- Persistent fatigue, despite adequate rest and sleep
- Intense food cravings, especially for sugary or high-fat foods
- Decreased libido and sexual dysfunction
- Increased frequency of urination
- Weakened immune system and increased vulnerability to illnesses
- Irregular menstrual cycles in women
- Increased blood pressure
Causes of High Cortisol
There are many factors that can contribute to high cortisol levels, including:
- Chronic stress: When we are under chronic stress, our bodies produce more cortisol in an attempt to cope. This can lead to high cortisol levels over time.
- Adrenal gland disorders: The adrenal glands are responsible for producing cortisol, so any problems with these glands can lead to high cortisol levels.
- Medications: Some medications, such as steroids, can raise cortisol levels.
- Sleep deprivation: When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies produce more cortisol in an attempt to stay awake. This can lead to high cortisol levels over time.
- Thyroid problems: Thyroid problems can also affect cortisol levels.
- Cushing’s syndrome: Cushing’s syndrome is a rare condition that is caused by too much cortisol in the body.
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:
- Chronic fatigue and lack of energy, even after sufficient rest
- Weakness and muscle fatigue
- Weight loss and decreased appetite
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness and lightheadedness upon standing
- Salt cravings and a desire for salty foods
- Digestive issues, such as abdominal pain, nausea, or diarrhea
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) symptoms, including shakiness, weakness, and difficulty concentrating
- Mood changes, such as irritability, depression, or anxiety
- Difficulty coping with stress or feeling overwhelmed by normal tasks
- Impaired cognitive function, such as brain fog or lack of focus
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.
- High stress: High stress can either increase, or decrease cortisol levels. Typically during acute stress cortisol levels will rise, however when that stress becomes chronic, you may see decreases in cortisol.
- Irregular sleeping patterns: Irregular sleep patterns can cause low daytime cortisol by disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that regulates many of the body’s functions, including sleep, hormone production, and metabolism. When the circadian rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to a number of problems, including low cortisol levels. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Unhealthy diet: A diet that is high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats can lead to inflammation, which can disrupt the body’s ability to produce cortisol. Additionally, diets that are low in protein and essential nutrients can also lead to low cortisol levels. Try to focus on a diet that includes lean protein, lots of green leafy veggies, and wild Alaskan fatty fish.
- Nutrient deficiencies: Deficiencies in certain nutrients can also play a role in cortisol production. Without the proper building blocks, your body can’t make enough cortisol. Nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc, iron, and sodium all play a role in making cortisol. Ensuring you’re getting these nutrients in can get you one step closer to more balanced cortisol, and thus moods.
- Lack of exercise: Lack of exercise can cause low cortisol levels. Exercise helps to regulate the HPA axis, improve insulin sensitivity, build muscle mass, and improve sleep quality. These effects can help to lower too-high cortisol levels. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
Other factors that can contribute to low cortisol levels include:
- Overactivity of an enzyme called HSD-11B: This pesky enzyme can convert active cortisol into inactive cortisone. This can make it seem like you don’t have enough cortisol, even when you do. If you stick to a simple blood cortisol test, you will get a result that says cortisol is fine when it really isn’t. Looking at the type of cortisol will guide you to solutions that work. We’ll talk about this more in Part III, but there is a hack for too much conversion of cortisol into cortisone: Natural remedies like Glycyrrhiza (licorice) can help you make more cortisol and improve your energy when needed.
- HPA Axis dysfunction: Sometimes, low cortisol can be a result of a bigger problem with your HPA axis. If your hypothalamus or pituitary gland isn’t working properly, that can lead to a lack of stimulation for the adrenal glands, resulting in low cortisol levels.
- Adrenal insufficiency: There’s also a condition called adrenal insufficiency. This occurs when your adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol. It can be caused by adrenal gland disease or autoimmune disorders that attack the adrenal glands. Addison’s Disease, which former President John F. Kennedy famously had, is the most common type of adrenal insufficiency.
- Glyphosate exposure: Research indicates that glyphosate (Roundup ®) may inhibit the HPA axis, resulting in decreased stimulation and production of cortisol in the adrenal glands. You can measure glyphosate via urine testing, though some medical professionals question the precision and dependability of these tests.
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:
- Ashwagandha: This adaptogenic herb is known for its ability to help the body cope with stress. It can help to reduce cortisol levels, improve sleep quality, and boost energy levels.
- Rhodiola rosea: Another adaptogenic herb, Rhodiola rosea is also known for its stress-relieving properties. It can help to improve mood, reduce fatigue, and increase physical performance.
- Holy basil: This herb is also known as tulsi, and it has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to promote relaxation and reduce stress. Holy basil can help to lower cortisol levels, improve sleep quality, and boost the immune system.
- Ginkgo biloba: This herb is known for its memory-boosting properties, but it can also help to manage cortisol levels. Ginkgo biloba can help to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and protect the brain from stress.
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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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.