Cortisol: key to health and weight loss

Cortisol is sometimes referred to as the ‘master’ hormone, as it’s a powerful hormone necessary for life. But if optimum levels are not maintained in the body, it has the ability to wreak havoc on our body’s fragile endocrine balance.

Photo: Woman with hand pressed to her temple.

High cortisol levels can lead to adrenal fatigue.

The result?

Your health will suffer.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands. It’s primary functions are to:

  • regulate the increase of blood sugar through gluconeogenesis (the breakdown of non-carbohydrates to glucose)
  • suppress the immune system
  • aid with fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolisms
  • decrease bone formation
  • help to manage our stress response.

Stress management

Cortisol helps us to function during times of stress in our lives.

When the stress levels go up, cortisol kicks in and delivers help. Cortisol helps us with a quick burst of energy, our memory sharpens, and our sensitivity to pain decreases.

These are all natural and important functions of cortisol and ensure that we are able to function and get through during times of stress.

The long term dangers of high cortisol levels

When you have prolonged, high levels of cortisol in your bloodstream, you will:

  • crave foods that are high in carbohydrates,
  • gain weight in your abdominal area (which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes),
  • have trouble sleeping.

Unfortunately, what is healthy in small bursts becomes dangerous over the long term. If the stress doesn’t stop or reduce, neither does the cortisol levels.

From an evolutionary perspective, cortisol was very helpful with temporary stresses such as running away from predators or chasing down food.

These days, stress is related to finances, running late, working under pressure, finding a job, arguments, and the list goes on.

In these modern situations, you can’t run off and expend the stress energy – so it can build up.

With this persistent stress, cortisol levels become out of balance where the body makes so much cortisol that it detrimentally affects health.

This leads to adrenal fatigue.

Cortisol and the Circadian Rhythm

The Circadian Rhythm is the natural rhythm of our bodies where different chemicals are produced at different times during the day and night that control our sleep, energy and mood. Coortisol is a key player is this rhythm.

The body produces cortisol in amounts largely determined by the body clock, with levels higher in the morning triggered by the emerging daylight ¬– giving you a boost of energy to jumpstart the day.

As the day wears on, cortisol levels should drop, helping to prepare you for a good night’s sleep.

Another hormone that affects your energy and sleep habits, melatonin, should be at a lower level lower in the morning but as the daylight fades, melatonin should increase, which helps you to relax and prepare for sleep.

However, if there is constant stress or if the adrenal glands are not functioning properly, cortisol levels may actually rise and stay at a high level, and not drop off during the day.

This means that when bedtime rolls around, you may feel ‘tired but wired’, and not be able to relax and fall asleep.

Reset your Circadian Clock

There are several things you can do to reset your circadian rhythm if you think that it has been disrupted, so you can start sleeping better at night and waking up more refreshed in the morning.

Try the following tips:

Reduce stress

I know it’s easier said than done. Learning how to recognise and cope with stress more effectively may be all it takes to balance your cortisol.

Eat most of your calories early

You may find that you can reset your circadian rhythms more easily if you eat the bulk of your daily calories earlier in the day, instead of later in the day.

Be consistent

Slowly coax your body into a schedule by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. This will help to regulate your circadian rhythm.

Use light wisely

Since your circadian rhythm is partially controlled by light, darken your room well when you go to bed, and flood it with light when it is time to get up. You could even use a full spectrum light in the mornings.

Avoid naps

If your circadian clock is off, you may find that you get very sleepy in the afternoon. Try to resist naps as this may make it more difficult to fall asleep at night, which disrupts the balance.