Cortisol is the newest health buzzword, but what’s all the fuss about?

Cortisol is one of the hormones released by the adrenal glands (the other one is epinephrine), and is essential for the body's response to stress. Measuring cortisol can help diagnose adrenal diseases and monitor stress levels.

Stress used to mean you were running from a bear. Your body would release epinephrine and cortisol to stimulate your fight or flight response; then you’d either be eaten or get away and rest while your stress levels fell back to normal.

Today, however, we’re faced with a much different scenario. Too many people have high stress all the time.

“We are constantly cranking out these hormones because ‘Oh, my God, this traffic is terrible and I have to get my kid to the violin lesson. And oh, my God, I have a big work project. And oh, my God, it’s raining and I don’t have an umbrella,’ ” says Jennifer Schmid, a holistic nurse and natural wellness educator at Oasis Wellness in Santa Clara, California. These pressures keep cortisol levels cranked up until the body can’t do it anymore, and then cortisol levels crash.

“There are all sorts of health effects that come into play with higher — or lower — levels of cortisol,” Schmid says.

Elaine Ferguson elaborates: “Cortisol speeds the heart; tightens our muscles; alters our vision, digestion and breathing, as well as other bodily functions, to appropriately respond to danger.”

“Over the long term, this causes wear and tear on numerous organ systems and makes us more susceptible to the development of acute and chronic diseases, including colds, the flu, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, depression and many more,” says Ferguson, author of “Superhealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body, and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being.”

Cortisol too high or too low?

Rather than lowering your cortisol, Schmid emphasizes balancing it.

When cortisol is too high, digestion shuts down, you have bloating and constipation, and your immune system doesn’t work as well, so highly stressed people are chronically sick. Blood sugar levels stay high to help pump blood, run faster and fight the bear, but because there is no bear, you can become pre-diabetic.

You’re also always hungry because cortisol is preparing your body for a major physical workout. But you’re not working out; you’re say, sitting at your desk freaking out about the meeting you have with the boss. So now you have higher levels of belly fat and are prone to obesity. Sleep may be elusive because you’re edgy and your mind whirs constantly.

People with low levels of cortisol may be lethargic. A loss of appetite and weight are common, as are mental fog, inability to cope with stress, depression, muscle weakness and irregular menstrual cycles.

“Cortisol levels are really just a biological marker of the hormone to validate your energy,” Schmid says. If they’re too high, you’re stressed, frazzled and on edge; too low, and you’re exhausted and lackluster.

How to balance cortisol levels

It almost doesn’t matter if your levels are high or low, Schmid explains. The health effects can be severe either way. Here’s some advice for balancing cortisol:

  • Slow down when eating. Don’t eat racing around, and don’t eat in the car or at your desk. Maintain calm during a meal because that keeps digestion moving and will help you absorb the vitamins and minerals from your food.
  • Spin classExercise. Even a 20 minute walk helps reduce all that blood sugar and cortisol built up in cells and return them to normal levels. “And, if possible, a movement with joy, something you like to do is best,” Schmid says. “Don’t go to spinning class because it burns the most calories; go because you like it. That will balance the levels even more because you get endorphins coming out of the brain when you’re joyous.”
  • Get quality sleep. Aim for 6.5 to 9 hours or your own personal sweet spot. Everyone instinctively knows how much they need to feel their best. “The life expectancy of nurses who work the night shift is 10 years shorter than nurses on day shift,” Schmid says. If you knew you were shortening your time on the planet, you might be more apt to make sleep a priority.
  • Slow your mind. Meditate, try deep breathing, read something methodical like a book of poems, practice yoga, find calm in nature — whatever brings an inner peace of mind.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Interrupt those that are leading to feelings of distress, Ferguson says.
  • Drink green tea. L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, is one of the most powerful supplements to naturally interrupt the stress response.
  • See a naturopath. “Naturopathic medicine offers many solutions for adrenal stress,” says Julie Durnan, co-founder of Pacifica Naturopathic Clinic in West Vancouver Canada. “Depending on the level of depletion and other organ systems that have been affected, the options vary from botanical prescriptions such as ashwagandha and rhodiola, to nutritional suggestions or injected cocktails of vitamins and minerals.”
Cali the cortisol-sniffing dogDetecting cortisol issues

The first cortisol-sniffing dog, Cali, is on duty at a Whippany, New Jersey, school where she’s tasked with greeting students each morning and assessing whether any of them have a high level of cortisol in their blood.

Kids with autism tend to have higher levels of the stress hormone, which makes it likely they are agitated or upset. With a sniff of her nose, Cali tells her handler, a health teacher on staff, that a student has high cortisol by staring at them. The teacher can then pull kids aside and ask about what’s going on, saying “Cali told me you may be upset or worried about something.”

Quick, easy cortisol testing may soon be available via smartphones, too.

"We have developed a method for measuring cortisol in saliva using a smartphone and a disposable test strip," says Joel R.L. Ehrenkranz, director of diabetes and endocrinology of the Department of Medicine at Intermountain Healthcare in Murray, Utah.

Users insert a strawlike saliva collector under the tongue. The collector wicks the saliva to a test strip in a cassette, which is inserted into a reader. The smartphone uses its camera to take a picture of the saliva-coated strip and an algorithm converts the image's pixel density to a cortisol value. Researchers hope to attain FDA approval in 2015.

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Spin photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock; Cali photo: The Calais School