American Osteopathic Association

Advancing the distinctive philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone to Keep in Check

Stressed manWho hasn’t dealt with stress? With approaching deadlines, frantic schedules, and a multitude of tasks that need to get done, stress has become an unavoidable part of our days and even our nights. While occasional stress may not affect your well-being, regular stressful episodes can eventually begin to take a toll on your health if not properly managed.

Every time we become stressed, our body reacts by producing and releasing cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, into the bloodstream. Studies show that high levels of this hormone can produce serious health problems and increase the chances of dying from heart disease. Are you at risk? Jonathan J. Vitale, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Chicago, discusses the symptoms associated with increased cortisol levels and provides tips to help keep your stress and health in check.

How can increased cortisol levels affect your health?

If you have trouble sleeping during the night, difficulty recovering after exercise, or excessive cravings after 5 p.m., you might be experiencing the effects of high cortisol levels, which result when the body is under intense stress.

Is cortisol completely bad for your health? “No,” says Dr. Vitale. “A small rise in cortisol levels is normal. That is your body's natural response to stress. In fact, normal cortisol levels actually help to strengthen the heart muscle and regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels,” he notes. According to Dr. Vitale, a normal cortisol level should peak in the morning hours between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. and then steadily decline throughout the day.

It becomes dangerous when the body experiences chronic stress because over time, these levels increase above optimal range and can put you at risk for developing sleeping, memory and digestive problems, as well as serious mental and physical problems. Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Irritability

  • Weight gain

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Low libido

  • Difficulty recovering from exercise

If you suffer from these symptoms, Dr. Vitale recommends visiting your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.

If you don't have a physician, consider a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or DO, who will look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well. They also encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.

How can you keep your stress and cortisol levels at a healthy level?

“It starts with proper nutrition, hydration, a balanced exercise routine, and plenty of sleep,” says Dr. Vitale. To help regulate your body’s cortisol levels and maintain good health, Dr. Vitale recommends:

  1. Avoiding toxins such as cigarette smoke, chewing tobacco, and limiting caffeine consumption, especially from coffee, soft drinks, and energy drinks. 

  2. Avoiding sugar and reducing starchy carbohydrates in your diet.

  3. Routine daily exercise, which helps ultimately reduce resting cortisol levels; however, make sure to limit extreme heart activity, such as intense training exercise, to 40-minute periods, since that’s when cortisol levels peak.

  4. Implementing recovery-based exercise such as walking, Pilates or yoga at the end of workouts to regulate cortisol levels.

  5. Getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, ideally from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

  6. Practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation.

“If you’re suffering with stress symptoms on a daily basis, it is important to work with your physician to determine a stress management strategy,” says Dr. Vitale. “Most of the time, a few key lifestyle changes are all it takes to reduce stress and improve your health.”

Staying stress-free and healthy

Stress may be unavoidable, but it is not impossible to manage. “Taking steps to implement better nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes into your weekly schedule can help regulate your stress and cortisol levels,” says Dr. Vitale. “Stress is a part of life, but with the guidance of your physician and stress management techniques, you can begin to take control of stress and your cortisol levels before they control you.” ​​​​


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