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Understanding cortisol and stress levels

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8 April 2022|3 min read

Key Points

  • Cortisol is a hormone released via the adrenal gland in response to stress.
  • The HPA axis regulates cortisol levels and sleep cycles.
  • Mindfulness may lower stress levels and help reduce cortisol levels.

You may have heard that cortisol and stress levels are related, but there are so many misconceptions around the how, what, where and why of their connection.

We asked Psychologist, Dr Bronwyn Coward to help us gain a better understanding of this important hormone and its role in the stress response. 

“When we are stressed, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus releases cortisol to tell the body that there is a threat and assists with the fight or flight response,” says Dr Bronwyn.  

So, what exactly is cortisol? 

Cortisol explained

Cortisol is a hormone that’s released via the adrenal gland in response to stress.
“The trigger could be anything from a work deadline to taking care of family, having a bird swoop you or seeing a large dog,” explains Dr Bronwyn.  

Cortisol is released as a stress response to assist the body in tackling the event, increased stress equals increased cortisol.

- Dr Bronwyn Coward

The purpose of this? To assist your body’s stress response to help you respond appropriately in a dangerous situation.

How does the process work? 

Your hypothalamus – which is a small region of the brain that’s located where the back of your neck meets your head – sends a message to the adrenal gland via the pituitary gland.

Then, your adrenal gland releases cortisol and other hormones, including adrenaline, to help your body prepare to overcome challenges – like meeting a deadline or being attacked by a bear.   

The cortisol encourages your body to jump into stress-fighting mode by:

  • increasing sugar into the blood flow
  • helping the brain more effectively use this glucose
  • increasing its ability to repair tissues
  • suppressing the digestive system, reproductive system and growth process – all the things that historically weren’t needed to help you deal with stress

In modern life, our challenges are often less bear-attack related. But physically, our body still reacts in the same way. 

This is why doctors refer to the effects of stress on the body – stress instantly activates a physical response. 

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Does cortisol impact stress levels?

When it comes to cortisol and stress levels, some people falsely believe that cortisol causes stress. But Dr Bronwyn explains it actually works the other way around.

“Cortisol is released as a stress response to assist the body in tackling the event, increased stress equals increased cortisol,” she says. 

Should cortisol levels fluctuate during the day?

It’s normal for your cortisol levels to fluctuate during the day. Generally, cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning and lowest around midnight as they decrease over the course of the day.  

Cortisol and sleep

“Cortisol plays a valuable part in regulating sleep,” explains Dr Bronwyn. 

Your body follows a sleep-wake rhythm over 24 hours, and the production of cortisol also follows a similar pattern. These patterns are both regulated by something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (or HPA axis for short) which helps with:

  • coping with stressful events
  • regulating sleep
  • maintaining alertness during the day
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Should we try to reduce cortisol levels? 

Dr Bronwyn believes that “the human body will usually produce the correct amount of cortisol.”

Generally, unless you have a condition where the balance of cortisol could be disrupted or there’s been long-term activation of the stress response system, your body should be creating the right amount.

If you do feel like something is amiss and want to know how to lower your cortisol levels, contact your health professional for guidance. 

How does mindfulness affect cortisol levels? 

There’s been some interesting research on this topic. A review of 209 studies suggests mindfulness-based therapy could be useful to help address a variety of psychological challenges – which could in turn help improve mental wellbeing. 

And because we know that cortisol release is triggered by stress, and one of the benefits of mindfulness is that it reduces stress, mindfulness may possibly help reduce cortisol levels. 

So, if you’re curious about mindfulness, maybe try some daily positive affirmations, deep breathing and meditation.

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Are there foods that reduce cortisol? 

Dr Bronwyn says there aren’t any specific foods that reduce cortisol but maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle and diet is beneficial for overall physical and mental wellness. So, it might be worthwhile adding some mood-boosting foods to your plate.  

Does exercise reduce cortisol? 

When it comes to exercise, Dr Bronwyn explains that regular exercise is a great way to help manage stress. 

In fact, research has found physical exercise training could potentially support changes in cortisol levels in healthy individuals.  As a 2017 review of five studies indicated, physical exercise may promote a reduction in cortisol levels in people with reduced mental wellbeing. However, the researchers found that this cortisol reduction could be influenced by:

  • the type of exercise the participants did
  • how often they exercised
  • the type of cortisol measurements used in each study

It’s the old chicken and egg thing

It’s incredible how well our bodies have evolved to thrive under pressure. We’re lucky in Australia that our stress levels are more likely to be impacted by a work deadline than something like a bear attack. Even if your body gets confused between the two and releases cortisol anyway.

If you’re interested in learning some lifestyle strategies to help you manage mild stress just that little bit better, join our free, healthylife stress less program. We explore more about how stress affects the body and share some expert stress-management tips and insights.

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Dr Bronwyn Coward is a registered Psychologist, an endorsed Clinical Neuropsychologist and an AHPRA board-approved supervisor who draws on over a decade of experience to bring solution-based assessments to her clients. 

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board April 2022.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.