Cortisol: tame the stress hormone


When work/life demands increase, it’s all too easy for business leaders to go the extra mile. But it could also send the hormone cortisol soaring. Director investigates what it is, how to spot it – and how to keep it under control

Flights to catch, meetings to prepare for, the relentless pressure of needing to boost revenue while bearing down on costs… the life of a company director is certainly no picnic. But while many leaders thrive on the disequilibrium often required in the workplace, they give little thought to the impact their ‘go hard or go home’ attitudes may have on their health – in particular, their cortisol levels.

Putting in an extra mile when needed might be what turns an average leader into a visionary, but it’s also what drives up levels of this potentially harmful hormone. And it can hinder both performance and wellbeing.

Cortisol is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ because it is secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘flight or fight’ response to stress and is responsible for several changes that take place when a person feels anxious or excited, including heightened memory functions, lower sensitivity to pain and a burst of energy, all designed to enable someone to act quickly and efficiently when in a stressful situation.

It also acts as an anti-inflammatory and regulates glucose metabolism, which helps keep the blood sugar level.

But the hormonal mechanism that evolved for cortisol was never intended to handle long-term stress. Biologically, it was designed to shut down the immune system after recovery from a short-term disease or danger, such as being chased by a wild animal.

Although people are rarely chased home by packs of wolves these days, they do have more lifelong problems which lead to chronic stress: extended hours, seven-day weeks, constant commuting can all take their toll psychologically and physiologically, especially on directors.

“Millions of years ago, humans were designed to react quickly to danger. Like wild animals, they were on constant alert so they could run or fight if threatened,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, a leading nutritionist and former president of the Food and Health Forum at the Royal Society of Medicine. “When the brain thinks life is threatened it stimulates the release of both adrenaline and cortisol, which provide instant energy for five to 10 minutes, allowing a swift reaction.

“The trouble is, the body can’t distinguish between infuriating colleagues and the truly life-threatening stressors it gears up to challenge. It reacts exactly the same to both.”

Chronic stress coupled with lack of sleep, excessive caffeine, poor diet and no relaxation also send the body’s adrenal glands into overdrive, meaning cortisol levels are permanently elevated. This can lead to a range of health issues, from a depressed immune system to insulin resistance and depression. It causes weight gain too – one reason many top executives suffer the dreaded ‘spare tyre’.

When cortisol levels are high, the body’s starvation mechanism kicks in and stores fat, mostly in the abdomen, where there are more cortisol receptors. This explains why those who exercise regularly still can’t lose weight. The problem may not be in the gym, but the boardroom.

Signs of high cortisol include an increased craving for sweet foods, caffeine or alcohol, frequent colds, headaches, digestive problems such as bloating and flatulence, hair loss, chest and muscle aches and pains, depression, tiredness but inability to sleep well, and difficulty concentrating or remembering things.

Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels not only cause weight gain, but affect where fat is stored. In 2007, a UK research study showed that people who respond to stress with high cortisol levels were likely to snack.

“One sign someone is suffering from high cortisol levels is the mid-afternoon slump, around 4pm, when they crave caffeine or something sweet to get them through the afternoon,” says Dr Glenville.

Studies also suggest that the high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and a build-up of plaque deposits in the arteries – all common risk factors for heart disease.

“It is important to get stress under control and lower cortisol because it changes how we think and feel,” Dr Glenville adds. “People generally have more energy, are more productive and think much clearer and make decisions more easily. They also feel in better control and able to cope, which in the workplace can only be a good thing.”

To learn more about good nutrition and attaining a healthy lifestyle visit

Five steps to reduced cortisol levels and improved wellbeing

SLEEP MORE Aim for at least 7.5 to nine hours per night. Sleep gives the body time to recover and boosts levels of the appetite-controlling hormone leptin.

EXERCISE Aggression-releasing sports such as boxing are great ways to recreate the body’s ‘fight’ response, while aerobic activities – jogging, cycling – reproduce the ‘flight’ outlet. Both eat away at cortisol.

MEDITATE Taking a few relaxing deep breaths engages the vagus nerve, which triggers a signal within the nervous system to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure.

RECONNECT Social isolation leads to higher levels of cortisol, according to 2013 studies published in the Science journal. In short: spend some more time with your friends and family.

EAT RIGHT Eat more cortisol-calming foods, such as asparagus – high in stress-reducing folate, and avocados, rich in glutathione, a substance that blocks intestinal absorption of certain fats.

More information on cortisol can be found at


About author

Nilufer Atik

Nilufer Atik

Nilufer Atik has over 15 years experience writing for national newspapers and magazines. She is also a qualified personal trainer and nutrition expert.

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