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Why cortisol is stressing us out

We give cortisol hormone such a bad rep and blame it for all our problems; weight gain, fatigue and cravings, but actually it is essential for our survival.

We call cortisol our “stress hormone” because it helps the body respond to stressful situations, for example if we were being attacked, it influences our fight or flight response and helps us run away from danger. It is actually also so important for a wide range of processes including metabolism and our immune response so it is something we need to have in our body.

In Laymans terms, cortisol is produced via the adrenal glands in response to physical or psychological stress via a signalling process through the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. The body reacts to this increased cortisol by working alongside adrenaline to raise our heart rate and release glucose from stores for us to use as immediate “energy”. This is a completely natural state that our body needs when in danger.

The problem comes when cortisol is chronically elevated in our system, putting us in a chronic state of fight or flight and ready for battle when we don’t need to be.

Cortisol is increased by numerous factors but the most relevant to most individual’s day to day life are;

  1. Too little sleep

  2. Too little calories

  3. Emotional stress

  4. Excessive exercise

And it is sadly not uncommon for some of us to experience all the above simultaneously – for example a yoyo dieter may be sleep deprived, consuming minimal food intake, feel stressed about losing weight and pushing themselves hard in training to burn as many calories as possible. Other "at risk" individuals include new mums, athletes and busy working professionals.

Being in the fitness industry, I have noticed many Personal Trainers are also at risk of having chronically high cortisol levels, they often get up early for clients, are dieting for fat loss or an event, are stressed with the pressures of self-employment and are constantly chasing personal bests in training; add in some pre-workout caffeine, loud music, rushing to appointments and that increases further.

Although a bit of high cortisol may not seem like the end of the world right now, it is the long term effects that could cause trouble for this stressed out generation. Long term effects include;

  • Type two diabetes

  • Increased risk of autoimmune disease

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Fertility problems

  • Thyroid disorders

  • Dementia

  • Depression

  • Chronic fatigue system

You may also notice some fairly obvious short term effects of high cortisol that suggests you may be pushing a bit hard and need to make some sensible self-care life changes;

  • Weight gain – especially noticeable around face and abdomen

  • Anxiety and depression

  • Irritability, anger and mood swings

  • Cravings for sugar and carbohydrates

  • Bloating and abdominal pain

  • Extreme fatigue

Unfortunately, the body cannot tell between physical and psychological stress so even though it may seem a great idea to get in the gym straight after an argument with your partner/boss/friend, it is likely to increase cortisol levels and feelings of anger further, especially if you haven’t had time for breakfast! In actual fact it would probably be more beneficial to get some fresh air and take a walk to reduce those cortisol hormones.

It is so important to take responsibility for choices we make to ensure we look after our bodies as we are going to be stuck with them for a little while;

Try a few of my suggestions next time you are getting symptoms of chronic stress


  • Prioritise good quality sleep

  • Breathe deeply – even just taking 10 deep breaths in a time of stress can support cortisol reduction

  • Gentle exercise such as walking outdoors or yoga

  • Reading or watching a tv programme

  • Addressing emotional/psychological issues of stress - this is the most important thing - we need to have the courage to address the stressful issue to prevent symptoms re-appearing.

Dietary – there is no one perfect diet but small alterations can support the reduction of systemic inflammation

  • Reduce caffeine

  • Reduce high GI loads - fizzy drinks, white pasta or rice, baked potatoes, dates, raisons

  • Reduce excessive alcohol intake

  • Ensure adequate intake of vitamins and minerals through a variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains

  • Increase fibre in the diet by ensuring intake at all meals e.g. oats at breakfast, wholegrain bread and salad and lunch and vegetables at dinner.

  • Consume oily fish such as salmon at least twice per week


  • Vitamin D

  • Probiotic e.g. VSL

  • Omega 3 if not consuming oily fish

  • Consider taking adaptogen herbs Ashwaghanda and Rodiola

Ultimately if you are feeling stressed or tired, your body probably is too – give it the TLC it deserves!

Live life fully

Rachel x