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Fitness & Hormones: What does cortisol do?

December 01, 2023 5 min read

Fitness & Hormones: What does cortisol do?-VPA Australia

Exploring its effects on weight management, stress, and overall health

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays a crucial role in the body's stress response. It is often referred to as the "stress hormone" due to its release during challenging or demanding situations. However, cortisol's influence extends beyond stress management. 

In this article, we will discuss the functions of cortisol, its impact on weight management, muscle breakdown, sleep, chronic stress, exercise, health conditions, and ways to manage cortisol levels naturally. 


Understanding cortisol and its role in the body 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released inresponse to stress.During stressful situations, cortisol is released into the bloodstream. This hormone prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels.So, whenever you find yourself being chased by a lion, cortisol is sure to get you running! 

Aside from this, cortisol also hasmultiple functions within the body. Ithelps regulate metabolism by influencing how the body converts food into energy. It also plays a role incontrolling blood sugar levels, ensuring that the body has enough glucose for immediate energy needs.

Additionally, cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory agent, reducing inflammation and aiding in the body's immune response. 

While cortisol is essential for short-term stress response, chronic stress can lead to consistently elevated cortisol levels, which can have negative implications for weight management, muscle growth, and overall health. 


The impact of chronic stress 

Excess cortisol, often associated with conditions like Cushing's syndrome or chronic stress, can have a significant impact on various hormones and the endocrine system.Prolonged exposure to stressors can lead to consistently elevated cortisol levels, which can disrupt various bodily functions. 

Here are some of the key hormonal effects of excess cortisol: 

  • Suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis:  

Chronic elevation of cortisol levels can negatively impact the HPA axis, which regulates the production and release of cortisol itself. This can create a feedback loop, where the body continues to produce excessive cortisol. 

  • Alteration of sex hormones: 

Excess cortisol can disrupt the balance of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. In women, this can lead to irregular menstrual cycles and may contribute to conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). In men, it can lead to reduced testosterone levels, which can affect sexual function and libido. 

  • Impact on insulin and blood sugar: 

Cortisol plays a role in regulating blood sugar levels. High cortisol levels can increase insulin resistance, leading to higher blood sugar levels and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. 

  • Disruption of thyroid function: 

Excessive cortisol can interfere with the production and conversion of thyroid hormones, which are essential for metabolism regulation. This can lead to symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue, weight gain, and cold intolerance. 

  • Suppression of growth hormone: 

Cortisol can inhibit the release of growthhormones, which is crucial for growth and repair of tissues as well as significant muscle loss and hinder muscle-building efforts.In children and adolescents, excess cortisol can interfere with normal growth and development. 

  • Impact on bone health: 

High cortisol levels can lead to the loss of calcium from bones, reducing bone density and increasing the risk of osteoporosis. 

  • Immune system suppression: 

Cortisol has immunosuppressive effects, which can make the body more susceptible to infections and delay the healing process. 

  • Influence on appetite and metabolism: 

Cortisol can affect appetite and food preferences, leading to increased cravings for high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich foods, which can contribute to weight gain. 

  • Mood and neurotransmitter regulation: 

Cortisol can affect the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to mood swings, anxiety, and depression. 


The connection between sleep and cortisol 

Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, with the highest levels typically occurring in the morning to help wake the body up. However, disrupted sleep patterns can disrupt the natural cortisol rhythm, leading to imbalances. Lack of quality sleep or irregular sleep patterns can contribute to higher cortisol levels, which can negatively impact metabolism, weight management, and overall well-being. 

Read further onthe importance of sleep. 


Managing cortisol levels naturally 

Reducing cortisol levels and managing stress naturally can have a positive impact on your overall health and well-being. Here are some effective strategies to help lower cortisol levels and cope with stress: 

  • Exercise regularly:Physical activity, such as aerobic exercise, yoga, or tai chi, can help reduce cortisol levels and promote relaxation. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. 

  • Practice relaxation techniques:  

Deep breathing:Take slow, deep breaths to calm your nervous system and reduce stress. 

Meditation: Regular meditation practice can help lower cortisol levels and improve emotional well-being. 

Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and then release different muscle groups to promote relaxation. 

Guided imagery: Use your imagination tovisualise calming and peaceful scenes. 

Get enough sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Adequate sleep is crucial for regulating cortisol levels and managing stress.

  • Maintain a balanced diet: 

Avoid excessive caffeine: High caffeine intake can lead to elevated cortisol levels. Limit your caffeine consumption, especially in the afternoon and evening. 

Eat a balanced diet: Consume a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. 


Stay hydrated:Dehydration can increase stress, so drink plenty of water throughout the day. 

Manage your time: Organise your tasks and set priorities to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Avoid overloading yourschedule, and make time for relaxation and leisure activities. 

  • Social support: Maintain strong social connections and seek support from friends and loved ones. Sharing your feelings and experiences with others can help reduce stress. 

  • Mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): Mindfulness practices involve staying present in the moment without judgment. MBSR programs teach mindfulness techniques that can be effective in reducing stress and cortisol levels. 

  • Engage in hobbies and relaxation activities:Pursue activities you enjoy, whether it's reading, gardening, painting, or listening to music. These can provide a welcome break from daily stressors. 

  • Limit exposure to stressors:Identify sources of stress in your life and take steps tominimise or eliminate them when possible. This may include setting boundaries, delegating tasks, or seeking professional help. 

  • Consider herbal remedies: Some herbs, such as chamomile, ashwagandha, and valerian root, have been shown to have stress-reducing properties. Consult with a healthcare professional before using herbal supplements. 

  • Maintain a positive outlook: Cultivate a positive mindset bypractising gratitude and focusing on the things you can control. Avoid ruminating on negative thoughts or stressors. 

  • Seek professional help:If your stress and cortisol levels are persistently high and impacting your daily life, consider speaking with a mental health professional, such as a therapist orcounsellor, for support and guidance. 


Remember that reducing stress and cortisol levels is a holistic process, and what works best for one person may differ from another. It may be helpful to combine multiple strategies and make lifestyle changes gradually to effectively manage stress and promote overall well-being. 

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