The role of cortisol in the body

National Stress Awareness Day

  • Fatigue (not feeling refreshed when you wake up, even after a long sleep)
  • Brain fog or inability to concentrate
  • Anxiety
  • High emotions, feeling of tearfulness
  • Craving sweet and salty foods and/or alcohol
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Reproductive system disruption (abnormal periods, erectile dysfunction)
  • Changes to digestive function – bouts of reflux, constipation and diarrhoea

Any of these sound familiar? What’s causing it all?

CORTISOL – the worst superhero in history

CORTISOL helps you run away from bears!

CORTISOL shuts down all non-essential systems!

CORTISOL stops you digesting your food properly!

CORTISOL decides that you don’t need to reproduce when you’re running away from bears!

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the brain when it perceives a threat. If you need a sudden burst of energy to get yourself out of danger, cortisol helps by shutting down all non-essential functions like digestion, reproduction, sleep and complex cognition, leaving you with rapid breathing, fast blood supply to major muscles and extra short-term energy. Unfortunately, the brain is not very good at distinguishing between a real physical threat (like a bear), and a long-term stressor (like a global pandemic).

What can happen in situations of chronic stress, where the brain is unable to process that the body is no longer in imminent danger, is that cortisol continues to be produced at maintenance levels. This means that all the systems which have been dampened down, stay that way.

Cortisol is a really important hormone because it also controls our sleep cycle. It is supposed to lower in the evening, as it gets dark, allowing the ‘rest and digest’ functions of the body to take over, and starts to ramp up again just before dawn, ready to wake you up and start the day. If this cycle is disrupted you may have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, and wake up feeling even more tired than when you went to bed.

What can you do about it?

Recognising the problem is an important starting point. It’s important to understand what your chronic stress triggers are and try to address them directly. Here are some very basic ways you might be able to redress the balance:

  • Keep a diary of the things which tend to worry you each day, and find someone to talk to about them. That doesn’t need to be a professional, just ask someone to listen to you
  • Try going to bed just 10 or 15 minutes earlier each day
  • Make sure you get at least 30 minutes of fresh air each day, preferably with exercise which raises your heart rate
  • Avoid looking at your phone or computer screen for at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep (preferably an hour) and don’t check your emails just before bed
  • Avoid alcohol for at least two days per week and try and minimise the amount of sugar in your diet
  • Do one thing that brings you joy every day: sing, dance, watch a cartoon, buy yourself some flowers, phone a friend, play a game…