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Cortisol – the enemy to your mental health and wellbeing

By Gina Vorster

Hormones are the building blocks of who and what we are as human beings. When our hormones are balanced, we thrive. When they aren’t, they can make even the most level-headed woman question her sanity. With mental health currently being under the global spotlight, we should arm ourselves with ample knowledge on a specific hormone that has the potential to make or break us: Cortisol.

The main functions of hormones

Some of the main functions of hormones include sexual development (including puberty, fertility, menstrual cycle, etc.), reproduction, regulation of muscle and bone growth and body fat, sexual desire, hair and nail growth, cognitive functions, sleep, and moods.

Factors that contribute to hormonal imbalance

Naturally, a woman’s hormonal health tends to decline with age, pregnancy, menopause, medications, environment, menstruation, and the biggest culprit: Stress.

The impact of high cortisol levels on mental health

The vicious cycle of stress:

Stress causes hormone imbalance and hormone imbalance causes stress. It is a never-ending circle and one of the most potent jabs at mental health. The longer stress rules the body, the more cortisol is released (also known as the stress hormone). Increased cortisol levels cause a decline in oestrogen.

This is the key factor:

Lowered oestrogen levels spell disaster where mental health is concerned. Oestrogen is the link to the overall emotional wellbeing of a woman, as it affects the parts of the brain where serotonin and -receptors are produced, as well as the modification, effects, and production of endorphins (also known as feel-good hormones).

Stress > increased cortisol > oestrogen decline > disruption of endorphins

Greater risk of depression, irritability, anxiety, and chemical imbalance in the brain that causes mental illness.

High levels of cortisol can also cause type 2 diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, fatigue, and infections.

How to lower your cortisol levels

Lower stress levels. There are many ways to do this: therapy, certain medications and supplements, healthy coping mechanisms, exercise, and realizing what triggers stress and implementing solutions.

A healthy, low sugar diet and sufficient water intake. In a fast-paced world that is designed to feed addiction, this is one of the most difficult things to control. Foods like dark chocolate, green tea, or probiotics (also found in yogurt) are also good sources of stabilization.

Ample sleep and relaxation. Getting enough sleep and making time to switch off from the rat race of life will substantially lower cortisol production.

Have fun! This is a logical solution: combat the stress hormone with feel-good hormones. Take up a hobby, spend time with loved ones, get a pet, or spend more time doing whatever it is that brings you joy.

If you suspect that your cortisol levels are elevated, or if you have symptoms such as high blood pressure, increased thirst and urination, weight gain around your abdomen and in the face, decreased sex drive, muscle weakness, or feelings of depression, irritability, and anxiety, it might be worthwhile to visit your doctor and get your hormones tested. The solution is always nearby when the problem is properly identified.

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