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Stress and cortisol – it’s a great combination in a crisis; but not so good long term.

We’ve all felt stressed at some point, whether it’s in a one-off frightening situation or in the constant juggle of everyday life. 

No matter what causes it, when we get stressed, the steroid hormone cortisol is released into our bodies. 

If you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, overworked, or simply not getting enough sleep, you could be experiencing stress and have high cortisol levels.

Cortisol: we need just the right amount

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands which are located above your kidneys. The release of cortisol is regulated by the pituitary gland, normally in response to circumstances and events such as waking in the morning, exercising and extreme stress.

It has a lot of important functions in the body such as controlling blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and increasing your metabolism. 

You can’t live without cortisol, but too much or too little can also be bad for you. 

When we’re suddenly under threat, cortisol is produced to help your body respond to danger. It enables the fight or flight response. 

But if you’re stressed for a long period of time and have high cortisol levels long-term, you’re at greater risk of a whole host of physical and mental problems including hypertension, heart disease, ulcers and anxiety.

Why we want to ‘fight or flight’ even when we don’t need to

The “fight or flight” response is an acute reaction to something really stressful. It acts as an in-built safety mechanism. Your hormones get your body ready to either fight the threat or run away – fast. 

Once upon a time it would have protected us against predators, but these days it might happen in sudden or stressful situations, such as nearly crashing your car or having to give a big presentation at work or uni. 

We’ve all been there: your heart races, you start to feel a bit short of breath, your muscles tense, you go pale – or blush bright red – and you start shaking. 

This all makes a lot of sense if you’re about to be chased by a lion. But it’s no fun at all if you feel that way every day, and it’s not good for your body or your mind long-term.

Why chronic stress is so bad for us

If you have that “chased-by-lions” feeling every day, you probably have chronic low-level stress. Normally, once a threat passes, your stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) drop back to normal, your racing heart slows down, and everything returns to normal.   

But if you’re chronically stressed, your body’s stress response system remains always-on, with the stress hormones constantly ticking away in the background. 

So, how do you know if you’re living with chronic stress? Some signs might include:

  1. Disturbed sleep 
  2. Fatigue
  3. Headaches
  4. Digestive problems
  5. Anxiety and depression
  6. Feeling overwhelmed, moody or irritable 
  7. Difficulty concentrating 

Unfortunately, if chronic stress is unaddressed, a whole host of health problems can follow, such as:

  • High blood pressure 
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Diabetes and thyroid issues

That’s right, high cortisol levels can also cause weight gain, the build-up of fatty tissue, and even increase your appetite so you’ll end up eating more. (There’s no denying that chocolate and cake always go down a treat when we’re feeling stressed.)

Are you burning the candle at both ends? Check our 7 signs of chronic stress. Click To Tweet

Stress links to diabetes and  thyroid issues

While the link between chronic stress, cortisol and diabetes is not fully understood, we do know that if your cortisol levels are high long-term, you could be more likely to develop type-2 diabetes

One theory is that cortisol changes the body’s sensitivity to insulin – and insulin is the hormone that keeps your blood sugar levels from getting too high or too low. 

Stress and cortisol also affect your thyroid and can cause hypothyroidism. Too much cortisol hinders the production of thyroxine, and your thyroid can’t efficiently control your body’s metabolism, leading to other health issues. 

If you have a thyroid disorder, stress can also make your symptoms worse because your thyroid relies on a delicate balance between the stress hormones and cortisol.

What are the signs of cortisol

What are the signs of high cortisol levels?

If you’ve been living with chronic stress, then there might be some other tell-tale signs of higher than normal cortisol levels. Common symptoms can include: 

  • Weight gain around the face and abdomen
  • Skin that’s thin, fragile, heals slowly or develops acne   
  • High blood pressure 
  • Mood swings
  • Flushed face 
  • For women, facial hair and irregular or absent periods 

If you’re concerned about any of these symptoms, and you’ve been living with chronic stress, then it might be time to put some stress-busting strategies in place. 

Similarly, if any of these symptoms are causing you concern, then it might also help to discuss these with your local doctor.

Why we all cope with stress differently

Chances are you know someone who’s always calm – even in a crisis – while there are others who fly into a panic over the smallest issue. 

We all have our own way of coping with stress, and how we cope is influenced by our genetics – because genes control the stress response – and our life experiences. 

If you’ve had a terrifying or traumatic experience, chances are you’ll be stressed when a similar situation happens again. Our minds can be a vault of learnt behaviours and memories we’d rather forget.

How to get on top of chronic stress

There’s no magic wand to make stress go away, and often we can’t change our circumstances. But there are lots of things we can do to help us manage stress, such as:

  1. Getting enough sleep
  2. Exercising regularly
  3. Eating healthy food 
  4. Finding effective ways to relax such as deep abdominal breathing, meditation or yoga 
  5. Having social support and connections with friends or community groups
  6. Laughing 
  7. Enjoying hobbies 
  8. Accessing counselling services, if needed
Don’t let chronic stress get on top of you: read our 8 favourite ways to keep it in check. Click To Tweet
Managing stress at work

Managing stress at work

One of the major causes of stress for most people is work.

Most jobs are stressful in some way, but some jobs – such as emergency services and healthcare – can be so stressful they can cause anxiety, depression, fatigue and burnout. Harassment and bullying in any workplace can also take their toll. 

For all workplaces, there are ways of helping employees manage stress through employee involvement, the positive influence of managers, and regular communication across the organisation. A lot of workplaces are getting better at helping employees manage their health and stress. 

Some companies are also playing a more active role in helping employees detect, manage and monitor chronic health conditions through work. This is a great way to help reduce stress, and deliver peace of mind in relation to your health.

MyHealthTest works with a large number of companies as part of our WorkWell Program, which gives employees access to test kits for common conditions such as diabetes and thyroid conditions. We’re also looking at adding a new home-based test for cortisol – along with some other hormones – in the future.

Monitor and check your health at home

One of the things that we hear from our clients at MyHealthTest is how much more control they feel they have of their health by being able to detect, manage or monitor for chronic health conditions at home. And as we know, feeling more “in control” leads to an overall feeling of greater confidence and wellbeing.

We currently have home-based testing kits available for diabetes and thyroid conditions and will be adding new tests (including for cortisol and other hormones, and selected vitamin deficiencies) in the near future. You can stay in touch with our new test roll-outs by subscribing to our e-newsletter.

In the meantime, if you have any concerns about your cortisol levels or are experiencing any symptoms that are of concern to you associated with chronic stress, then please discuss these with your healthcare provider.

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