Imagine if there was one thing that could solve all your problems. Fatigue, inflammation and weight gain? Check. Bad skin, bloating and puffiness? Check. Eye twitching, headaches and just about any kind of illness you can think of? Check. If you’ve been on TikTok in the last week, you’ll know that I’m talking about cortisol. For whatever reason, finding ways to control the “stress hormone”, as it’s often called, has become the internet’s golden ticket to optimal living.

The hashtags #cortisollevels and #howtoreducecortisol have garnered more than 150 million combined views on TikTok alone. Meanwhile, searches on Google for “cortisol” reached an all-time high this month, with the search term “how to reduce cortisol” ranking fourth in “how to” searches in the UK over the last 90 days. Videos with millions of views are advising people on all things cortisol, from natural ways of lowering your levels through diet to describing a “day in the life of someone with high cortisol”, in which people blame various ailments and afflictions (including round cheeks) on having excessive amounts of the hormone.

Then there are videos urging people to make drastic changes in order to lower their cortisol, like switching HIIT workouts for yoga and quitting coffee, or starting the day by taking umpteen supplements and spending 15 minutes in a sauna. There are even cortisol cocktail recipes. It’s overwhelming, particularly because hardly any of these clips are created by doctors – and nor do most of them even really explain what cortisol actually is.

“Cortisol is a stress hormone that is synthesised from cholesterol in the adrenal cortex,” explains Jodie Relf, dietician and spokesperson for MyOva, a fertility supplement. “During periods of stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated – it is responsible for our fight or flight response, and triggers a sequence of hormonal and physiological responses such as increased heart and respiratory rate. When the threat remains, the adrenal cortex is stimulated to release cortisol, keeping the body on high alert.”

All this information might sound alarming, particularly if you receive it via various abbreviations courtesy of a frenetic, unqualified TikToker. In reality, it’s just a normal bodily response and, once the perceived “threat” has been removed, the cortisol levels typically return to normal. “The production and secretion of cortisol is regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis,” adds Relf. “Loss of regulation can result in cortisol excess disorders such as Cushing’s syndrome, or insufficient levels of cortisol such as Addison’s disease.”

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to lower our cortisol levels, which are raised by stress. “In today’s fast-paced society, chronic stress has become increasingly prevalent, leading to elevated cortisol levels in many individuals,” says Ruth Jamieson, functional nutritionist for ARVRA wellness. “Factors such as work pressure, financial stress, relationship issues, and lifestyle habits can contribute to chronic stress and cortisol dysregulation.”

The problem is that, because we can become stressed by so many different factors in modern life – whether it’s work, money, health, social expectations, family, friends or our relationships – we often aren’t giving our bodies a chance to calm down. In short, there are perceived threats all around us.

“The body doesn’t differentiate between these different stressors; it interprets them all as a sabre-toothed tiger and prepares to confront or flee danger,” adds Jamieson. “While this response enhances survival in the short term, and there are benefits to short-term stress, chronic stress leads to chronically elevated cortisol, which in turn can lead to dysregulation of vital bodily functions.”

This can manifest in a range of ways, from acne and muscle weakness to increased appetite, sleep disruptions, and high blood pressure. There might also be some truth to the TikTok clips regarding high cortisol levels affecting the specific shapes of sufferers’ faces and bodies. “If raised levels of cortisol are left unchecked, it can lead to weight gain, especially around the midsection and rounding of the face,” says women’s wellness expert Dr Shirin Lakhani. It can also affect your mood. “Raised cortisol levels can have an effect on the brain, causing changes in neurotransmitters in the brain so you can have imbalances in serotonin: your happy brain hormones. So you can start to get poor mental health,” she adds.

With all this in mind, it’s even more pressing that people get their information on cortisol from the right sources. Sure, there might be clips with millions of views telling you how to “hack” your cortisol levels and get them down. The tips in them might even work. But given how important this is, and how much of your mind and body it can affect, it makes more sense to listen to medical experts.

So, how can you really get your cortisol down? One easy place to start is by addressing your diet. “A ‘good’ diet can facilitate natural reduction of inflammation in the body while also promoting tissue repair; this can reduce cortisol,” explains Steve Chambers, personal trainer at Ultimate Performance. “This will reduce cortisol, resulting in decreased risk of chronic disease and improved well-being. A good diet consists of a balanced intake of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats in a defined ratio) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients).”

Generally speaking, this can be broken down into eating dark, leafy veg, drinking plenty of water, and reducing alcohol and caffeine. Weightlifting can help, too. “When looking to lose fat around the tummy, too many people fall into the trap of thinking that endless cardio will shift it,” says Chambers. “In fact, too much cardio will actually put your body under even more stress, leading to – you’ve guessed it – elevated levels of cortisol. So much so that many people get incredibly frustrated and disheartened because, despite hours spent on the treadmill, their weight won’t budge. Lifting weights has been shown to be far more effective when it comes to managing cortisol levels and burning fat, when combined with a calorie-controlled, high-protein diet.”

Lighter forms of exercise can help, too, particularly things like yoga and meditation. “Engaging in activities that help you relax and unwind, such as listening to calming music, or spending time in nature helps reduce cortisol levels,” adds Dr Lakhani. “Deep breathing exercises such as box breathing can also help. Box breathing involves being in a comfortable position, inhaling slowly and deeply through your nose for four seconds and holding your breath for four seconds, before exhaling through your mouth for four seconds. You should then hold your breath for four seconds before repeating the process.”

Most importantly, though, you will lower your cortisol levels by identifying your key stressors and finding better ways to manage them. Ironically, scrolling through TikTok probably isn’t going to help, even if all you’re doing is watching videos about how to do just that – several studies have linked excessive screen time to cortisol dysregulation.

“Be aware of your thinking pattern, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension so that you can recognise stress when it begins and tackle it to help prevent it from becoming worse in the long run,” suggests Ada Ooi, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and founder of 001 Skincare.

Sometimes, though, the best piece of advice could be as simple as doing the things that you love, and surrounding yourself with people closest to you. “Laughter really is the best medicine – it promotes the release of endorphins and suppresses cortisol,” adds Ooi. “Often we are so busy that we get swept up in the day-to-day and forget to appreciate the small moments in life that bring us joy and help us to feel more relaxed. They can make a huge difference.”

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2024-04-27T05:03:12Z dg43tfdfdgfd