woman in black blazer sitting on chair
Stress is needed in small doses for productivity, but too much can throw your hormones out of whack. Photo by Elisa Ventur

Why cortisol can mess with you and how to stop it

Cortisol is like the evil stepsister of collagen, which I write about in my other post. More is not better and can sabotage our well-being. So let’s see how cortisol affects us, and what you can do to keep it at bay.

What is cortisol, and why is it so bad? 

Cortisol isn’t actually bad to begin with. It’s a necessary part of our stress response system, which is essential for our survival. That “fight or flight “ elevation in adrenaline and the accompanying hormone cortisol is what enables a mother to physically lift a car to save her trapped child. Or in less dramatic situations, you suddenly can run like a gazelle when you are late to catch a flight. It becomes a problem when what goes up does not come down. If we are in a constant state of stress, which can occur from aggravating factors like work stress, lack of sleep, and even too much exercise, our heart rates and blood pressure don’t get  a chance to return to baseline. 

In other words, if you constantly feel stressed out and “ under attack,” that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.and the cortisol level doesn’t have a chance to come down.That constant “on” state and resulting elevated cortisol levels can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Which can cause the following: 

  • Anxiety;
  • Depression;
  • Digestive problems;
  • Headaches;
  • Muscle tension and pain;
  • Heart disease’
  • Sleep problems’
  • Weight gain; amd 
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Evolutionarily speaking, maybe we can handle the stress in the moment like our great ancestors did but our bodies in modern day have a hard discerning between that of our ancestors and an all-caps angry e-mail! OK, so we know cortisol can be bad when it’s constantly on. So what happens that makes it so?

Cortisol aggravators 

Several lifestyle factors can awaken the cortisol beast, so to speak:

  • Lack of sleep – Yeah, I ragged on this in my collagen post too. But it matters for SO MUCH! Being sleep deprived is responsible for elevated levels of cortisol, including later in the day when the body is supposed to be in wind down mode. These elevated levels are also responsible for your cravings for fried or unhealthy food. Lack of sleep also contributes to ghrelin production (caustic, acidic feeling in your stomach) signaling our bodies that we are starving- even if we are not.  
  • Stress – in a study involving women and work stress,it was shown that work demands and lack of social support were significantly associated with rising cortisol levels. 
  • Overtaining – Wait, what? Isn’t exercise supposed to reduce stress? Yes, but high motivation can easily lead to inadequate recovery and what is known as “overtraining syndrome,” which can cause a myriad of complications, one of which is excess cortisol. So give that some thought the next time you decide it’s a good idea to double at soulcycle. Here are some other classic signs of overtraining: Here are some signs of overtraining and what you can do about it. It is exciting to get into the swing of things and have movement a real part of your life, part of that process requires slowing down and tuning into to what your body is telling you— you will be pleasantly surprised what happens when you slow down! 
  • Excess caffeine intake: This is especially bad when paired with the first factor, a lack of sleep. Look, I need my cup of jo just as much as the next guy, but too much coffee as you bug out over those deadlines can accelerate the negative effects from cortisol.
woman in white bikini sitting on red chair
Medititaion is good for the mind AND the waistline.

How to manage cortisol

  • Exercise first thing in the morning: This is already when your cortisol levels are high, so you are taking advantage of that elevated level and allowing it to burn out. Drink coffee before, but not after your workout, so you can benefit from the increased energy and release of glucose that occurs. Cortisol levels are supposed to rise in the morning and gradually decline throughout the day; so doing a bootcamp class in the evening may not be the idea as you are just spiking up your cortisol again when the circadian rhythms in your body are telling it to chillax. If you do opt for an evening workout or if time will not permit it in the morning, try to stick to a lower stress form of exercise like walking or yoga (which also decreases cortisol). 
  • The ideal timing to drink the coffee would be not the second you wake up, but after a bit of time has gone by. Doing this allows you to benefit from that nervous cortisol energy, and then once it has time to come down, a cup of coffee will give you a natural and steady mood boost. While you are waiting to drink your coffee, aim to drink at least 24 oz of water. You may be worried you can’t deal with not drinking coffee ASAP but the antiicipation of coffee will have that dopamine effect that will give you a surge.
  • Limit caffeine to the equivalent of three cups or less a day. You may be a two-cupper in the morning, and if that’s the case, have your third cup before 2pm. If you really need a mid-morning coffee bump, try to wait at least an hour until after your workout and focus on hydrating. 
  • Meditate: Numerous scientific studies show that meditation reduces cortisol levels and associated fatigue from stress. I like to meditate while I sip my coffee, so I can really enjoy it (can you tell I like coffee??)
  • Play with your pet – Studies show that stroking an animal, making eye contact, and cuddling can lower cortisol level. The second you start to stress, look at your pet’s cute little face. Here’s an example if you need one:
You can’t be stressed after looking at this little face!

This article was peer reviewed by Neda Khalili.


Overtraining: 9 signs of Overtraining to Look out for, ACE Fitness blog

How slight sleep deprivation relates to obesity , Scientific American

Cortisol and Weight Gain, Healthline

How too much stress can cause weight gain and what to do about it (Orlando weekly)

Chronic Stress puts your health at risk (Mayo Clinic)

The link between cortisol and exercise (Shape)

https://www.shape.com/fitness/tips/high-cortisol-levels-exercise-stressWant to experience the good effects of coffee? Wait an hour after you wake up (Good word news)

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