Stress is the body’s way of reacting to a challenge, be it environmental or psychological.
In the human body, stress is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
The HPA axis regulates the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone.
Cortisol increases the blood sugar, suppresses the immune system, and it helps the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and fats.
Stressful situations increase the amount of cortisol circulating in your blood, which can have long-lasting effects on your health.
To keep your cortisol levels in check, try avoiding these common stress triggers. (a)
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- Poor Sleeping Habits
Whether you’re sleeping less than you should because you’re staying up late watching your favorite TV series, or you’re pulling an all-nighter with your friends, you’re raising your cortisol levels.
Not only that, but a night without sleep will also affect your cortisol levels throughout the following day, increasing them by up to 45%.
Humans really need to sleep at night. Maybe that’s why brunch is now a thing. (1)
- Working Out Too Much
This might come as a surprise, especially for fitness enthusiasts, but working out too much is actually stressful.
Studies have shown that prolonged physical exercises increase your cortisol levels.
But how much is too much, really?
Well, the same study has shown that a short (about 1 hour) exercise with a high intensity level is better than a long (about 3 hours) exercise of medium intensity.
Not only will the latter increase your cortisol levels during the exercise, but it will keep them elevated during the day.
So if you’re going to exercise, keep it short and intense. (2)
- Long Commutes
Remember that small apartment close to work you were going to rent before you found a larger one in the suburbs?
Well, you might have been better off renting the first one.
According to some studies, the longer the commute the higher the stress.
In fact, people with very long commutes are so stressed, they sometimes fail at simple tasks they would accomplish without any problems in other conditions. (3)
Doctors have been saying that smoking is bad for you for ages. Well, it seems like smoking affects you more than you think.
According to a study, nicotine will increase the levels of cortisol in your blood.
Smokers will inhale nicotine with every cigarette they smoke, so they will maintain an increased cortisol level throughout the day. (4)
- Caffeine Abuse
Some people cannot function properly without drinking a cup of coffee in the morning.
Well, we have good and bad news for them.
The good news is that, as far as stress levels are concerned, drinking a cup (or even a mug) of coffee in the morning won’t affect your well being.
The bad news is that caffeine abuse will increase your cortisol levels, so you have to be careful not to drink too much coffee.
To avoid caffeine abuse, you should drink up to three mugs (250 ml) of coffee per day.
You shouldn’t drink more than 3 mugs, or your cortisol levels will be elevated for the rest of the day. (5)
Obesity is currently affecting millions of people around the world, and it seems like this medical condition has more negative effects on your health than you previously thought.
Studies have shown that fatty tissue is initially used as an energy source during the body’s fight or flight response.
But that’s a double-edged sword.
After the stress that triggered the fight or flight response is over, your body is genetically used to refuel its energy supplies, so it will be able to face the next danger.
So your body will stock on resources and produce more fatty tissue. And the bad news is, fatty tissue helps with regenerating cortisol from cortisone.
The bottom line is, cortisol is closely linked to obesity.
High cortisol levels determine the accumulation of fatty tissue, and the fatty tissue encourages cortisol production from cortisone. (6)
- Eating Too Much Salt
Salt’s main component is sodium chloride (NaCl).
A high intake of sodium can modify your cortisol secretion.
Test subjects had a controlled sodium intake for 10 days.
For the last 6 days of the experiment, the subjects received 8 times more salt than in the previous 4.
Their cortisol levels were significantly higher during this period. (7)
Being a pessimist not only makes you dull at parties, but it actually makes you more prone to chronic stress.
If you’re a pessimist, you keep sending disturbing signals to your amygdala, which reacts by increasing your cortisol levels.
So next time you see a glass of water, think of it as being half full. (8)
- Low Magnesium Levels
Not having enough magnesium can lead to an increase in your cortisol levels.
Magnesium supplementation can lower the cortisol levels.
Luckily, you can find magnesium in many veggies and fruits, such as spinach, avocado, or bananas.
If these sources are too healthy for you, you’ll be glad to learn that even dark chocolate is a good source of magnesium. (9)
- Being Disorganized
Being disorganized can have more consequences than forgetting where your car keys are.
According to study, your brain will release more cortisol when presented with a stressor than it would if you were organized.
In fact, if you’re a very organized person, you might find it easier to deal with the stressor so your brain won’t even release cortisol. (10)
- Living In Fear
Whether you’re afraid of the little green men and you wear a tinfoil hat when shopping, or you’re afraid that you won’t have enough money to spend the New Year’s Eve in Vegas, you need to take it under control.
Living in fear, no matter what you’re afraid of, raises your cortisol levels.
The higher your fear perception, the higher your cortisol levels will be.
Fear can eventually lead to depression and other mental disorders. (11)
- Being Discriminated
It doesn’t matter if you’re discriminated because you’re rich, poor, Asian, or Hispanic.
Being discriminated is highly stressful, and it’s bad for your health.
Studies have shown that discrimination can lead to an increase of your cortisol during the day, and it can disrupt your diurnal cortisol rhythm.
This rhythm is a biomarker of chronic stress, and its disruption can lead to various health problems.
If you’re being discriminated at work, you should consider changing your workplace for health reasons. (12)
- Public Speaking
Your hands are sweating, your mouth is dry, and you can’t really focus on anything in particular.
Sounds familiar? Yes, you’re giving a speech.
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who’s bad at it.
Well, it looks like giving speeches is not for everybody, according to science.
People who have no experience with speaking in front of their peers experience a rise in their cortisol levels during and right after the speech. (13)
- Getting Rejected
Every time you see that cute blonde across the hall, you think about asking her out.
Being rejected is the worst thing that could happen, right?
Well, no, according to science. Studies have shown that a rejection can lead to an increase in your cortisol levels.
The cortisol levels will remain elevated even after the rejection took place. (14)
- Having Unrealistic Expectations
Expecting to win the local boxing championship without proper training may lead to more than a concussion.
Having unrealistic expectations can make you feel stressed because you feel like things are not going as well as they should.
This will raise your cortisol levels, and it can eventually lead to depression due to a lack of motivation. (15)
In today’s digital era, we are spending more and more time multitasking.
From checking your emails while cooking dinner to looking at the GPS while you are driving, our lives are defined by multiple activities we try to do at the same time.
Well, the bad news is, the human brain is not actually designed to work like that.
Switching your attention from one activity to another is stressful for your brain, and that will make it order the release of more cortisol in your body.
Once the cortisol is in your system, it actually causes a drop in your brain’s productivity. Ironic, right? (16)
- Junk Food
Junk food is often considered “soul food” by many people. Even though junk food might improve your mood for a while, it can be dangerous for your health.
Apart from the junk food’s high amounts of calories, fats, and sugar, it seems like low-quality food can lead to an increase in cortisol as well.
When compared with eating high-quality food, consuming junk food will raise your glucose and cortisol levels significantly.
So next time you visit your favorite junk food vendor, do yourself a favor and order a salad. (17)
- Working Too Much
Despite what you may believe, you are not defined by your job.
Well, maybe your work influences the way you think and act, but overworking will influence your health.
People who work too much have higher cortisol levels.
This might eventually lead to the development of other health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, reduced immune function, diabetes, and cognitive impairment.
Remember, you should work smart, not hard. (18)
- Bad Relationships
Have you ever heard people say that it’s better to end a bad relationship than dwell in it?
Well, they might be right, according to science.
If you feel you’re not appreciated and you hear someone say hurtful things, your cortisol levels will rise.
So next time someone you’re seeing isn’t nice to you, kick them to the curve. (19)
- Having A Bad Boss
Having a long day at work is tiresome enough, but when you have to spend a whole day working for an unfair boss, things get even worse.
A study has shown that people prefer working more and for a longer time than working for a bad boss.
Working for someone who treats you unfairly can increase your cortisol levels, and it can potentially lead to depression. (20)
- Increased Financial Obligations
People are used to making and spending money in certain ways.
They follow a pattern, sometimes for a short time, sometimes for decades.
But when the pattern changes quickly, their cortisol levels spike and their decision-making capabilities are impaired.
When people experience a financial crisis, they no longer have a clear view of their economic status.
This can lead to a further increase in cortisol levels, and to a state of psychological uncertainty and anxiety. (21)
- Excessive Dieting
You’re definitely familiar with this one.
Summer is coming, you want to shed some fat to let everyone on the beach admire your 6-pack, so you start dieting.
You cut a huge amount of calories from your diet, and when you get on the scale, surprise, surprise.
Instead of losing 5 pounds in a week, you lost 5 days dieting without success.
Well, we have news for you. It’s not your fault, it’s your diet’s.
Having a calorie intake below 1,200 calories daily produces a spike in your cortisol levels, making it more difficult to lose weight.
Not to mention you won’t be able to build any lean body mass with that intake. (22)
- Low Vitamin A Levels
Vitamin A is very important for good vision, maintaining a healthy immune system, and it also influences growth and development rates in teens.
However, vitamin A is also involved in your body’s reaction to stress, and not having enough will determine an increase in your cortisol levels.
Luckily, there are plenty of foods you can eat to make sure your vitamin A levels are normal, such as spinach, cheddar cheese, eggs, carrots, broccoli, or milk. (23)
- Low Zinc Levels
Zinc is one of the essential trace elements in humans, and it’s used by almost 100 different enzymes.
Not having enough Zinc in your body can lead to serious health issues, including a rise in your cortisol levels.
To make sure you consume enough Zinc, you should eat almonds, nuts, sunflower seeds, celery, or beans. (24)
- Being In Pain
Whether you hurt your pinky walking around the house and you were too lazy to see a doctor, or you’re recovering from a medical procedure, being in pain is stressful for your body.
When you experience chronic pain, your body produces more cortisol as a reaction to the stress. (25)
It doesn’t really matter if it’s low, medium, or loud, noise is stressful.
If you’re exposed to a constant source of noise, your body will start to perceive it as a stress factor, and it will start to release more cortisol. (26)
- Extreme Temperatures
Being exposed to extreme temperatures for a long time can lead to an increase in your cortisol levels.
People who are not acclimatized to certain temperatures, hot or cold, will have a lower threshold than those who are acclimatized. (27)
- Mercury Consumption
You might be wondering who would voluntarily consume mercury.
Well, nobody would, but people still present high mercury levels from time to time.
The primary source of mercury in humans is fish meat.
People who consume a lot of fish can present higher mercury levels, which can, in turn, lead to an increase in your cortisol levels. (28)
- High Altitudes
Reaching high altitudes can be very fun, and it can also make you more popular on social media.
But your body might consider spending time at high altitudes stressful.
When you reach high altitudes, the amount of oxygen in the air is lower than usual, so your body has trouble breathing.
This condition is called high-altitude hypoxia, and your body releases more cortisol to fight against it. (29)
- Having A Low Self-Esteem
Having a low self-esteem is not only bad for your social life, but it might actually be dangerous to your physical health.
People who have a low self-esteem show a spike in their cortisol levels when they have to complete a simple task in front of other people.
So, go on a diet to shed some weight, buy some weights to build some muscle, and improve your self-esteem. (30)
Having a viral or bacterial infection is very stressful for your body.
Not only does it have to consume precious resources to fight the pathogen, but it often has to do it while you’re running to catch the bus to work or driving the kids to school.
The amount of cortisol released during an infection actually shapes the immune response, and it is essential to the development of the disease. (31)