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How Too Much Stress and Cortisol Can Hurt You

Key Points:

  • Stress causes higher cortisol to help your body cope with the challenge/threat
  • Chronic stress and elevated cortisol can contribute to health issues such as fatigue, weight gain, and sleep problems.
  • Ways to manage stress and cortisol include diet, personal time, supplements, and community support.

We all experience stress and elevated cortisol at times. The worry of a deadline, a strained relationship, or sudden bad news can make you feel stressed out. When you experience stress, your body increases the amount of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is actually in your body all the time, but it is significantly higher during stress. This helps your body cope. After the stressor is gone, your body relaxes and cortisol returns to normal. 

But what if the stress is chronic? What if that stress response doesn’t relax? 

Cortisol causes many changes in your body, such as breaking down stored energy and increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. These changes make you ready to handle a threat. In the short term, it’s exactly what you need. In the long-term? It can cause harm.

How Cortisol Goes From Helpful to Harmful

Think of stress and relaxation as a cycle. Your body relaxes, then ramps up to deal with stress, then relaxes again and recovers. But when you have chronic stress, your body doesn’t get its needed relaxation and recovery time. As a result, cortisol also stays elevated. But cortisol is only meant to be a short-term helper. It’s not meant to be elevated all the time and can cause real harm.

    1. Chronic Fatigue: During chronic stress and elevated cortisol, your body has been trying to ramp up for a long time. This can leave you feeling drained and exhausted, even if you’re getting plenty of sleep.
    2. Increased Blood Sugar: Cortisol raises your blood sugar so your body has the energy to deal with a threat. It causes this by making insulin less effective and breaking down stored energy. But in the long term, it can cause insulin resistance and high blood sugar. 
    3. Weight Gain: When insulin isn’t as effective, it causes your body to think you need more food even when you don’t. High cortisol also causes extra belly fat to be stored. 
    4. Suppressed Immune Function: In the short term, cortisol boosts immune function by limiting inflammation. But in the long run, inflammation increases and immune function decreases. This can raise your risk not only for infection, but other inflammatory conditions like autoimmune diseases.
    5. Digestive Issues: When your stress response is high, digestion is put on a back burner until you’re relaxed again. However constant high stress can lead to digestive issues such as constipation and bloating.
    6. Sleep disturbances: You may have heard of melatonin (a sleep hormone) and your circadian rhythm. Cortisol is a part of that rhythm. Cortisol is higher during the day when melatonin is low, and melatonin is high at night when cortisol is low. However, chronically elevated cortisol may throw off your circadian rhythm. As a result, it can cause problems sleeping. 

How To Take Action:

Set Aside “You Time”

Making time for yourself is critical when reducing stress. Setting aside just a few moments to practice mindfulness, meditate, or do a little exercise can help decrease stress and boost your energy. 

Use Food for Your Mood

Whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean protein can help reduce stress and give your body the nutrients it needs to recover. The Mediterranean Diet in particular can help reduce stress and inflammation. Diets high in processed foods, refined sugars, and caffeine are linked to increased levels of cortisol and stress. Some foods to focus on:

  • Fermented foods like yogurt, miso, natto, and kombucha
  • Foods high in omega-3s like fatty fish, chia seeds, and flax seeds
  • Foods high in fiber like fruits and vegetables, seeds, legumes, and oats
  • Healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and avocado

Supplement Support

Supplements can be a great option for support, especially at the beginning of trying to balance your stress and cortisol. We often recommend Cortisol Manager. It supports balanced cortisol levels and helps reduce stress.* It uses both a stress-reducing and a cortisol-reducing blend including Ashwagandha, L-theanine, and Phosphatidylserine. 

Buy It Now: Cortisol Manager

Reach Out For Support

Having others to lean on during stressful times can be a powerful way to help manage stress. This can include friends or family, starting mental health counseling, or starting nutrition and lifestyle counseling. 


Stress affects everyone. But when stress becomes chronic, taking steps to reduce stress can help lower the risks to your health.

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