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Cortisol: Understanding the Stress Hormone

Cortisol: Understanding the Stress Hormone

What is cortisol?

Commonly referred to as the body’s ‘stress hormone,’ cortisol’s actions extend beyond the ‘fight or flight responses’ and are essential to maintain good health. Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands (above each kidney) and controls energy levels, sleep-wake cycles, metabolism, our immune system and blood sugar levels. 

What is the role of cortisol?

All of cortisol’s actions on the body can be imagined in the situation where we would need to run away from a lion –fortunately an infrequent occurrence these days. Cortisol increases sugar and energy to run, heart rate and alertness to concentrate on escape, and prepares the immune system and availability of substances to repair tissues if we end up with an injury.

While running away from lions hopefully doesn’t happen often, common life events such as your job, relationships, bereavements, or financial difficulties can all cause cortisol to rise and become imbalanced. Eventually this long term extra cortisol can have detrimental effects on our mood, weight, sleep and concentration.

Why is cortisol important during menopause?

Scientific studies have shown a slight increase in cortisol with age, particularly around and after menopause. However, the exact nature of this relationship to oestrogen and progesterone is still being investigated. We do know that oestrogen replacement (HRT) reduces the effects of cortisol on the brain counteracting some of cortisol’s negative effects, and improving memory and concentration.

What are some ways to reduce cortisol?

  1. Exercise reduces the body’s stress responses – 30minutes of walking a day is a great way to start exercising,
  2. Meditation or reflective practices – mindfulness and breathing exercises,
  3. Sleep – sleep is often affected during menopause, but getting a good night’s sleep can do wonders for stress. You can find more tips here,
  4. Diet – try to eat a balanced diet, spacing your meals regularly during the day. Skipping meals can increase cortisol. Some foods to avoid include: white sugar, white flour, alcohol, caffeine, soft drinks and fast foods,
  5. Hydration – drink plenty of water, dehydration can stimulate stress and cortisol release

To read more in this series, visit:

  1. An introduction to hormones
  2. Oestrogen and Progesterone
  3. Testosterone
  4. Thyroid Hormone

References:

(1)   https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/102/12/4457/4587523

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