You have a problem if this hormone doesn't fluctuate during the day

High stress levels can have a negative effect on your health.
High stress levels can have a negative effect on your health.

Did you know that your stress levels are linked to a hormone called cortisol? Cortisol is meant to fluctuate daily, otherwise it can lead to health problems.

Steady daytime levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with serious health problems, such as inflammation, obesity and cancer, researchers say.

When cortisol levels are constantly high, it can lead to Cushing's syndrome. However, when cortisol levels are too low, it can result in Addinson’s disease and extreme adrenal failure, causing constant fatigue, abnormally low blood pressure and a loss of appetite.

Cortisol levels should vary

Normally, cortisol levels should vary throughout the day. "Cortisol is naturally high in the morning to help perk you up, and it decreases into the evening," said study lead author Emma Adam. She is a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.

"The loss of this cycle, or the lack of variation of cortisol, is what is associated with negative health outcomes in our study," Adam said in a university news release.

The researchers suspect that chronic stress may be behind the less variable cortisol levels. They call it "stress-related circadian dysregulation".

No 'cause and effect'

However, the study only found an association between less variable cortisol levels and poor health. It wasn't designed to prove cause and effect.

For the research, the study team reviewed data from 80 studies. The investigators looked specifically at 12 health problems and found that 10 seemed associated with the loss of variation in cortisol levels.

"While inflammation and the immune system dysfunction had the strongest associations, fatigue, cancer, depression, and obesity were all worse in people who had less variation in their cortisol," Adam said.

Restoring cortisol levels

The findings suggest that restoring daily cortisol rhythms could benefit people's health. And cortisol as a hormone isn’t all that bad.  A Health24 article reports that cortisol can even be used to treat fear of heights in anxious patients.

"It's the righting of rhythms that are important, more so than the righting of levels," the researchers wrote.

Adopting healthy habits, such as regular exercise and adequate sleep, are important steps in restoring strong daily cortisol rhythms, Adam and her colleagues said. The results of the study appear in the September issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Managing cortisol levels

The ultimate solution is to find the perfect balance in your cortisone levels, which can be achieved by reducing stress levels, eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, sticking to a healthy sleep pattern and regular exercise.

Image supplied by iStock. 

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