Much has been said in recent times about stress, a phenomenon known as “the epidemic of the 21st century.” The pace of life we lead, the socio-economic situation and the working conditions to which we are subjected contribute significantly to the appearance of this condition.
Cortisol is one of the hormones associated with stress along with adrenaline, and its main function is to prepare the body for the moments of greatest activation when it is necessary to be alert.
Stress is an adaptive response that prepares our body to carry out a fight or flight response to a dangerous or threatening stimulus. However, when this phenomenon occurs daily and becomes chronic, pathological stress appears that causes serious problems for physical and mental health.
In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’How long does cortisol stay in your system?’’ We will talk about the stress hormone: cortisol, how it works in our system and some tips to reduce its high levels.
How long does cortisol stay in your system?
Cortisol levels increase systemically about 15 minutes after the onset of stress and remain elevated for several hours.
Imagine that you are in a movie theatre and you hear someone yell: Fire! Immediately you become alert and look for the nearest exit running. What happens at that moment in your body? The body is startled and sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which in turn activates other areas of the brain.
An involuntary response of the body begins through hormonal and nervous signals with the tachycardia, sweating and the rise in temperature that we have all experienced at some point.
This information passes through the thalamus and through the cerebral cortex, where the information received is processed cognitively and it is decided, to the extent that the feeling of fear allows it, how to respond to the threat.
Next, the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, after receiving the signal from the hypothalamus, release a series of hormones, among which adrenaline and cortisol stand out.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol, also known as hydrocortisone, is a glucocorticoid. It is produced above the kidneys, in an area known as the adrenal cortex, in response to stress (physical or emotional), and its synthesis and release is controlled by adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and its circadian rhythm.
In the morning, the amount of cortisol rises until reaching its peak around 8:00 am (taking into account a normalized sleep schedule), due to the need to generate energy sources after a long night. In the afternoon it also increases to keep us active, but then it decreases progressively.
Stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline
Cortisol and adrenaline are two hormones that are related to stress but have different functions. Understanding the function of each of these chemicals can help us understand what happens in our bodies when we are faced with a stressful stimulus.
The reaction to stress is an instinctive behavior that has allowed the survival and development of human beings since our body is programmed to act in situations of emergency or danger.
However, this that has worked so well for us throughout history, creates serious problems today because of the way we humans live.
Likewise, this phenomenon not only occurs before physical stimulus, but our thoughts can also cause stress (for example, when a person suffers a situation of post-traumatic stress and constantly relives a stressful situation from the past), which can lead us to a situation of excessive physical and mental exhaustion.
How does cortisol work?
In the face of a stressful stimulus, adrenaline gives us a quick boost, so that our energy increases so we can escape danger. Breathing, pulse, and heart rate speed up so the muscles respond more quickly.
The pupils dilate, the blood circulates faster, and it moves away from the digestive system to prevent vomiting. In general, the whole body prepares itself to react quickly to certain stimuli, so that it does not act at too slow a pace.
These physiological functions of adrenaline are complemented by other psychological functions such as keeping us on our toes and being more sensitive to any stimulus. Adrenaline, in addition to being a hormone, is also a neurotransmitter that acts in the brain.
In this way, an intense dialogue is established between the nervous system and the rest of the body, which is very useful when it is necessary to trigger processes that affect many areas of the body in a short time.
What function does it have in alarm situations?
In stressful situations, the cortisol level also increases. Its main functions are to increase the amount of sugar in the blood, and also to suppress the immune system to save energy and help the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. This can be very appropriate for a specific moment, but not when the stressful situation is part of our day today.
The release of sugar in the blood has the function of maintaining an appropriate energy level to respond effectively to the stress situation and allows us to be alert.
Actually, adrenaline in the brain signals the release of glucose into the bloodstream (known as blood sugar), but cortisol contributes to its synthesis. It also contributes to the use of fats and proteins as energy substrates.
As we have seen, another response of cortisol to a stressful situation is that it suppresses the immune system, because all energy is necessary to control stress.
In addition, this hormone also causes an increase in histamine, which explains why people tend to get sicker or suffer from herpes or allergies when they suffer from this phenomenon.
Relationship with stress
The excess cortisol that derives from staying in stressful situations for a long time causes certain imbalances due to the waste of energy that we are experiencing. Some of the symptoms that we may suffer are the following:
- Feeling of fatigue, tiredness and exhaustion.
- Memory, concentration and learning problems.
- Predominance of irritability, anger and aggressiveness.
- Physical pain (for example, headache or stomach)
- Weakening of the immune system and, therefore, diseases, allergies, etc.
- When stress lasts for a long time, then it is possible to experience complex pictures of anxiety, feelings of failure, insomnia, or depression.
Other consequences of an excess of this hormone
Although cortisol has a bad reputation because it is associated with something as negative as chronic stress or burnout, in the human body it performs a large number of vital functions.
Among other things, it allows our rhythms to adapt to the rhythm that certain situations demand of us, such as moments in which our physical integrity may be in danger or when a test that we must overcome is approaching. Although the sensation is not always pleasant, that does not mean that it is not necessary or practical.
However, in the long term it causes a number of unwanted effects. For example, cortisol production, either by deficit or excess, can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones and their conversion from T4 to T3.
Cortisol disrupts the reproductive system, causing infertility or even miscarriage when cortisol levels are too high or chronically elevated.
In addition, the chronic increase in cortisol can cause intense hunger and food cravings due to the metabolic disorder that occurs, and also influences mental blocks and memory problems related to the feeling of “going blank.”
How to lower cortisol?
Below we will see several strategies, of all kinds, that have been shown to be effective, to a greater or lesser extent, to control cortisol levels.
1. Give up caffeine
It is not a surprise to say that caffeine makes you nervous, but what may be a bit more interesting is how it influences cortisol levels.
This substance, present in coffee, tea or even in dark chocolate, causes cortisol levels to rise abruptly and maintains them for hours. This translates into being nervous for longer and suddenly.
The most effective way to avoid this effect is, simply, to reduce the consumption of drinks with this substance or, to leave the caffeine completely. In case you think you are addicted to caffeine, it is best to go to a professional.
2. Good sleep hygiene
Going to sleep irregularly, without established schedules, is something terribly detrimental to our physical and mental health, in addition to being a factor that increases cortisol levels.
Having good sleep hygiene consists, among other things, of sleeping about eight hours each day (less in the elderly, who sleep less) and, preferably, going to bed between ten and twelve at night, helps in stabilizing the levels of cortisol.
When we talk about how to reduce a hormone related to anxiety, it is clear that relaxation techniques cannot be ignored. Relaxation can be carried out in multiple ways, either with yoga or simply by meditating.
No matter the specific way in which you try to induce this relaxation, the important thing is that it serves to calm your mind and body and, consequently, acquire greater well-being.
For those who find it difficult to relax with these types of techniques, they always have the option of listening to music, but be careful! not every gender is valid. It is advisable to listen to relaxing ambient sounds or classical music.
4. Organize time
A disorganized lifestyle is the main cause of constantly living under stress. That is why it is truly necessary to try to put our lives in order.
Organizing time, meeting deadlines and trying to have more or less well-established schedules give our lives structure and, therefore, make uncertainty less frequent.
Cortisol, as a stress hormone that it is, appears in situations that we do not know how they will evolve. It is an evolutionary mechanism that serves to try to activate ourselves against a threat and find a short-term solution.
However, this mechanism is totally harmful if it makes us live all the time stressed. That is why, to the extent possible, if we can end this hourly anarchy, we will prevent this mechanism from being activated and we will not suffer so much stress.
5. Find out what worries us
Everyone has their concerns, which they live with and, as far as they can, try to deal with them. However, sometimes we find it more comfortable to do nothing against it, even though it drains us emotionally.
To improve our health, we can take two strategies. The first would be to try to be unconcerned, especially if it is something that we cannot change. However, if it is possible to combat it, let’s find out what exactly it is and face it.
Faced with these types of situations, it is always recommended to go to a psychologist, who will help us obtain effective strategies to be able to deal with the situation in a healthy way.
6. Eat foods rich in phenylalanine
Phenylalanine is a substance found in many foods, even though its name is not as well known to most people.
Unless you have the very harmful condition of phenylketonuria, in which people who suffer from it cannot consume phenylalanine without having neurological affectation, the consumption of food with this substance is highly recommended.
Phenylalanine is an amino acid that helps secrete dopamine, as well as helping to reduce the urge to eat carbohydrates and sugars, substances that affect stress levels.
Among foods with phenylalanine we can find rich sources of protein such as dairy, eggs, red meat and fish, as well as some whole grains.
FAQS: How long does cortisol stay in your system?
What are the symptoms of high cortisol levels?
- Sudden weight gain
- Skin symptoms.
- Muscle and bone symptoms.
- Deficiency in the immune system.
- Changing mood and mood disorders.
- Fatigue and insomnia
How do you lower cortisol levels quickly?
Exercise does not have to be very intense. It is enough to walk for half an hour a day, although going to a gym or joining directed activities such as boxing, body pumping or spinning are very ways to reduce the cortisol hormone.
Can Cortisol levels return to normal?
Yes. Hormone levels return to normal after a perceived threat has passed.
How do you flush cortisol out of your body?
You can’t eliminate cortisol, you can reduce it.
How does cortisol affect bowel movements?
Inflammation of the intestinal mucosa which could cause ulcers.
In this post we answered the question ‘’How long does cortisol stay in your system?’’ We talked about the stress hormone: cortisol, how it works in our system and some tips to reduce its high levels.
If you have any questions or comments please let us know!
Talbott, S. M. (2007). The cortisol connection: why stress makes you fat and ruins your health-and what you can do about it. Hunter House
Kelly, J. J., Mangos, G., Williamson, P. M., & Whitworth, J. A. (1998). Cortisol and hypertension. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, 25(S1), S51-S56.