Cortisol is a primary stress hormone. In the short term, it makes you efficient, but a permanently elevated cortisol level can be harmful. Learn more about the effects of cortisol and the three best anti-stress strategies here.
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What is cortisol
Cortisol (or: hydrocortisone) is produced in the adrenal cortex and, along with adrenaline, is the best-known stress hormone . It activates catabolic metabolic processes, i.e. breakdown processes in the body that provide energy.
Cortisol does not have a very good reputation – wrongly: The hormone is even essential for life. In the short term , it serves the body as an important protective shield against stress and inflammation. However, if the hormone is released permanently, for example in the case of chronic stress, cortisol can have negative effects, including on your ability to concentrate and sleep.
Reference levels of cortisol
Cortisol is vital. But an excess can quickly damage your health. But when are your cortisol levels really critical?
Basically, the cortisol level fluctuates over the course of the day. In the morning we are more ready to perform, the body releases more cortisol. Towards evening he prepares for regeneration and shuts down production.
Overview of the cortisol reference values:
(in micrograms per liter of saliva for men and women aged 18 and over)
|7 a.m. – 9 a.m.||0.60 – 8.40 µg / l|
|9 a.m. – 11 a.m.||0.40-5.30 µg / l|
|12 noon – 2 p.m.||<3.10 µg / l|
|5 p.m. – 7 p.m.||<1.40 µg / l|
|10 p.m. – midnight||<0.80 µg / l|
Important: The reference values can differ from laboratory to laboratory. In addition, there may be strong daily and seasonal fluctuations with no disease value. A visit to the doctor can provide clarity.
In acute stressful situations, for example when an exam is due or you train hard, the adrenal gland releases cortisol. Together with the messenger substances noradrenaline and adrenaline, it signals the brain to provide glucose as an energy source. The blood pressure rises, the heart pumps faster, the lipid metabolism is activated and inflammatory reactions in the body are inhibited. As a result, you are “ready to fight”, have increased concentration and feel more productive.
However, if the stress is not acute but a permanent condition – for example, because you have been under physical or emotional tension for weeks – the increased cortisol release can become a problem. If the stress hormone is released continuously, physical and psychological complaints can result.
What if the cortisol level is too high?
A chronically elevated cortisol level is particularly often associated with heart disease and high blood pressure . An excess of the messenger substance is also problematic for the brain: studies have shown that too much cortisol damages the nerve cells in the hippocampus – the area that is responsible for your ability to learn and your memory . Your memory can suffer and you may have trouble concentrating.
A reduced quality of sleep is also widespread . Normally, the production of cortisol decreases towards evening and the natural antagonist, the sleep hormone melatonin , takes over. However, if the release of the stress hormone does not decrease, your body will remain on the alert. Affected people often have difficulty falling asleep and take longer to regenerate – which in turn can negatively affect your training progress .
Studies ¹ also link stress, lack of sleep and obesity . A constant excess of cortisol switches your organism into a kind of “survival mode”. All other bodily functions are left behind at first. Not only sleep disorders, but also the creation of fat deposits and water retention can be the result.
An overview of the possible effects of increased cortisol levels:
- Heart disease
- high blood pressure
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory loss
- sleep disorders
- Obesity and weight loss problems
- disturbed regeneration
- Drop in performance
- weakened immune system
Causes of excess cortisol:
Are your cortisol levels too high? This could be due to:
- physical stress, e.g. B. by high work overload or overtraining
- emotional stress
- hormonal change, e.g. B. through pregnancy
- Overactive adrenal cortex
- very overweight
What if the cortisol level is too low?
There is also the reverse case that your cortisol levels are too low. Just like an excess, a lack of cortisol can be harmful to your health. Chronically low cortisol levels should always be treated by a doctor. A disease of the adrenal gland is often the reason for this.
An overview of possible symptoms of cortisol deficiency:
- Exhaustion and weakness
- Low blood pressure
- Irritability, mood swings and depressed mood
- High susceptibility to stress
- Weight loss and underweight
- Cravings for sweet or salty foods
Causes of a cortisol deficiency:
Permanently low cortisol levels can have the following reasons, among others:
- Disease of the adrenal cortex, e.g. B. Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) or Adrenogenital Syndrome
- Pituitary gland malfunction
- Taking certain medications
Stress is now the number one widespread disease. A chronic excess of cortisol is not exactly rare in our society. Regardless of whether you suffer from constant tension or feel overwhelmed at times – you should avoid too much cortisol as much as possible.
Here are the “big three” anti-stress strategies that will help you keep your cortisol levels at healthy levels:
1. Ensure sufficient regeneration
Sport is healthy and stress can even red and decorate . But it still depends on the dose: sessions that are too intense are counterproductive. Your brain receives the signal to run away from danger – for example in a marathon – or to be ready to fight. The result is an increased release of the stress hormone.
Overtraining will cause your cortisol levels to skyrocket . So make sure you have enough regeneration. That means, don’t train every day and replace one or the other hard workout with a casual jogging session or bike ride. Anyone who is already very prone to stress should be careful with high-intensity workouts like HIIT. Better: Yoga and meditation units that ensure calm and balance.
2. Eat a balanced and healthy diet
It is not without reason that it is said “you are what you eat”. Those who eat a balanced diet are also more balanced in everyday life – and less stressed.
Refined sugar, alcohol, caffeine and trans fatty acids (e.g. in chips or french fries) cause your cortisol production to increase rapidly.
Sweets increase blood sugar levels, trans fats increase your cholesterol level. Both stimulate the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol for regulation. Caffeine also stimulates the adrenal gland so that it releases more of the stress hormone.
Tip: Replace refined sugar with alternatives such as stevia or birch sugar and occasionally drink green tea instead of coffee. It also contains caffeine, but is more tolerable for many people. Or try one of our tea sets .
Looking for healthy, balanced recipe ideas? Take a look at our collection of more than 300 delicious meals .
3. Make sleep your priority
An excess of cortisol stands in the way of a good night’s sleep . Lack of sleep, problems falling asleep and restless nights, in turn, fuel your cortisol production – a vicious circle. Therefore, make sleep a priority.
For example, by supplementing melatonin . The sleep hormone is the antagonist of cortisol. Both hormones should always be in balance.
Also make sure that the room temperature in the bedroom is cool and sufficiently dark. It is also reassuring to put your smartphone or tablet in flight mode at least an hour before going to bed.
- Cortisol is a primary stress hormone that is produced under tension in the adrenal cortex to provide energy for the body.
- In the short term, cortisol can make you productive and increase concentration; a chronically elevated cortisol level, in turn, is harmful to health.
- A permanent excess of cortisol can lead to sleep disorders, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and difficulty concentrating.
- The big three anti-stress strategies for lowering cortisol are exercise and regeneration, healthy eating, and sleep.
- A lack of cortisol is also harmful and in many cases indicates a malfunction of the adrenal gland, which requires medical attention.