What It Is: Cortisol is a steroid hormone, commonly known as the ‘stress hormone’, produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood glucose concentration.
In survival mode, cortisol can be life-saving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth. Cortisol also prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation, hence it is often used medicinally (you will know it as hydrocortisone).
But when you stew on a problem, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues. Too much cortisol can weaken the activity of the immune system, increase blood pressure, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to obesity and more.
Cortisol and sleep. In humans, the amount of cortisol present in the blood undergoes diurnal variation – that is to say it naturally peaks at around 8am and is at its lowest level between midnight and 4am. Repeated or prolonged stress, however, can cause changed patterns of serum cortisol levels. This is especially the case in persons with mood disorders such as major depressive disorder, anxiety or psychological stress. In such situations, sleep can be severely hampered, which can add further stress to the body. Perversely, sleep deprivation can itself cause cortisol levels to increase!
Cortisol levels can be reduced in a number of ways, including music therapy and dancing, massage therapy and laughing. Medicinally, the supplementation of magnesium after aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, as has consumption of foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids and also Ashwagandha (Indian Ginseng) root extract.