Cortisol and Stress

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Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that is mainly used as a stress or alarm hormone in the body, but can also regulate metabolism and immune responses. Cortisol is produced when the hypothalamus and pituitary glands fail to sense high enough levels in the blood, they release their own hormones to stimulate the adrenal gland to make more cortisol, once enough cortisol is present in the correct hypothalamus receptors they cancel the production hormone and cortisol ceases being released.

It is used in the body for many reasons, it is fundamental in the body’s natural fight or flight response, as well as in regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, use of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, metabolism, foetal development, memory, reducing inflammation, controlling sleeping and waking, even boosting energy levels when needed. These are a lot of functions and almost every cell in the body has cortisol receptors in it, it is a very important hormone.

What is key is that in times of stress or fear it is released into the body where it can control whole systems. When under threat it can shut down digestion, reproduction, growth and immune systems to use the energy and resources the body has elsewhere, such as it increases blood pressure and heart rate.

Medical conditions causing high or low cortisol are: Cushing’s syndrome is when there is too much cortisol in the system causing increased weight gain, muscle weakness, diabetes, brushing of skin, high blood pressure, mood swings, low sex drive and loss of sleep. Addison’s syndrome is when cortisol is too low and causes skin discolouration, muscle weakness, diarrhoea/vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, low blood pressure.

However, in terms of therapy prolonged exposure to the hormone can have negative side effects on the body. This is usually caused by increase in long term stress reactions (like work place stress, monetary stress etc, or post-traumatic stress disorder) which continually tell the body that there is a risk and to release cortisol to be ready with the fight or flight response. This can lead to long term complications in health that are not purely caused by medical conditions as noted above, these are anxiety, depression, headaches, memory issues, heart disease, weight issues, sleep problems, digestive difficulties, and poor libido.

Therapy can help with excessive or repeated exposure to cortisol by assessing in the formulation stage of cognitive behavioural therapy what may be causing the increased cortisol and suggesting the following ways to deduce it as well as improving the causing factors where possible with behavioural experiments and exposure therapy.

Cortisol is known to be influenced by sleep patterns it is higher in the mornings and needs to be lower in the evenings. Regulated sleep patterns will help the body know when to produce or reduce the cortisol hormone (shift work can be very hard on cortisol and it is believed napping can help regulate it), thus low caffeine intake, reduced lighting and reduced stimulation in the evenings should reduce cortisol production aiding better sleep and regulating production. Exercise, either regular intense exercise (it increased production at the time but lowers it by evening) or moderate exercise can reduce cortisol levels. Recognising stressful thoughts and increasing relaxing can also regulate cortisol levels, this can be achieved by mindfulness (to recognise and regulate stress thoughts), meditation, breathing exercises, writing down positive thoughts in a diary, massage, calming music, yoga or tai chi, can all help with relaxation. Reduction of feelings such as guilt and shame which increase stress, replace them with love, forgiveness, anger reduction reduce cortisol and can all be brought about by well practised mindfulness.  Having fun can release positive hormones into the body to counteract the stress reaction such as doing hobbies, gardening, being outside, spirituality, being social with friends, good relationship, reduce arguments and avoid conflict, support and affection from a loved one have also show good cortisol reducing evidence. Pets have been shown to significantly reduce cortisol production especially studies with dogs. Eating healthily is also important, , fish, fatty acids, omega 3, probiotics, fruit, water, black or green tea, even dark chocolate can all lower cortisol. However continued high sugar levels can be detrimental to the over production of cortisol.

Overall it is the therapist job to ascertain the areas causing the clients increase cortisol production and suggest ways in which the client can reduce this, it is a holistic therapy combining all parts of the body, mind and emotions to reduce the behaviours, triggers, symptoms, and thus cortisol production.

If you’d like some face to face counselling in the Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme or Staffordshire area please do contact Wright Minds at laura@wrightminds.co.uk or on 07598810304