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Achieving your goals for health and fitness takes time, action and determination. You need to watch your diet, physical activity, sleep and more. But beyond that, research shows that your stress levels can also make or break your ability to meet fitness goals. Stress and cortisol are closely linked: with high levels of stress comes high levels of cortisol.

If everything else is going well, but you’re stressed, you need to watch and reduce your stress levels for improved health, weight management, and athletic performance.

Here’s more about what happens to your body when you are stressed or when your cortisol levels are higher than normal, and what you can do to help your body return to a balanced state. 

What’s cortisol’s role in your body? 

Cortisol is a hormone that affects almost every system in your body. But specifically, it’s involved in:

  • Regulating your body’s response to stress 
  • Regulating your metabolism (the way your body burns or stores energy) 
  • Your blood pressure 
  • Regulating your sleep cycle
  • Regulating your blood sugar 
  • Suppressing inflammation
  • Creating memories  
Man sitting at laptop with head in hands due to high levels of work stress and elevated cortisol

What’s the relationship between stress and cortisol? 

Stress is essentially any change that causes you strain. Common causes of stress are work, relationships, finances, performance pressure, and health conditions. When you are stressed, your body perceives it as a need to act or pay attention. While that is useful at times, some of the greatest sources of stress are outside your control. 

Everyone experiences some level of stress from time to time. That’s natural. And a little bit of pressure can even be productive. But the way you handle stress (as well as how intense the stress is) determines if it is helpful or harmful. 

When you are stressed, your body produces more cortisol. Cortisol keeps your body on high alert and makes sugar available to provide energy to your body. This is like a natural alarm system for your body. Definitely useful! 

But when the stress is sustained for long periods of time, this can disrupt the normal functioning of other hormones and systems in your body. It’s like a burglar alarm going off non-stop for weeks. 

And evidence suggests that long-term stress is linked to several negative effects including:

  • Increased blood pressure 
  • Hardening and narrowing of arteries 
  • Diabetes 
  • Low immune system function
  • Bone loss 
  • Muscle loss 

But how does cortisol play a role in your wellness journey?

How do stress and cortisol affect your exercise and nutrition?

Short-lived stress can be helpful because it puts your body into a state of alertness. It has also been found to improve your concentration and reduce your ability to feel pain.

Long-term stress, however, has a negative effect on your fitness or athletic performance and on your well-being in general. Stress disrupts your health and hormones in ways that hinder you from achieving your fitness and health goals.

couple at coffee shop arguing. Interpersonal relationships are a leading cause of stress

Effects of stress and high cortisol levels on your body

Some of the effects of long-term stress include 

  • Worsens athletic performance: There’s considerable evidence that stress can worsen athletic performance and stop you from achieving your goals. In one study, researchers found that athletes who had higher cortisol levels performed poorly. 
  • Increases weight gain: long term stress can make you more likely to overeat. Emotional eating, anyone? Additionally, high levels of cortisol promote weight gain. 
  • Burdens your heart: Stress keeps your body on high alert, which makes your heart beat faster. When this continues for a long time, it wears your heart out, raises your blood pressure and increases your risk of stroke and heart attack. 

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  • Disrupts digestion: Stress signals to your body that it needs to be ready. This makes your liver release sugar and the normal digestive processes are upset. This can cause diarrhea, constipation, and stomach aches. 
  • Tightens muscles: Stress makes your muscles tight and tense. When they stay that way for a long time, and they don’t get a chance to relax, this can cause aches, pain, and discomfort while hindering you from exercising too. 
  • Lowers libido: long term stress can lower libido. It can reduce testosterone levels in men and affects women’s menstrual cycles. 
  • Lowers immunity: In the short term, stress stimulates the immune system. But when this continues for too long, your immune system doesn’t function properly and people who are under long-term stress experience more viral illnesses like the common cold and flu.  And they also take longer to heal from injuries. 

What can you do to reduce your stress and cortisol levels? 

Long-term stress doesn’t usually have a quick fix, unfortunately. If you’re exposed to high levels of stress, it often isn’t as simple as just taking a break for a couple of days or relaxing more. 

There are some steps you can take to try and minimize your stress levels, if not alleviate stress entirely.

Here are some steps that may help. 

  1. Get enough sleep: Experts say about eight hours every day is optimal.
  2. Exercise regularly: Aim for 150 minutes a week if possible.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques: Controlled, slow breaths can help your body relax. Mindfulness can also help you focus on what’s within your control 
  4. Laugh long and often: laughter signals to your body to reduce cortisol and releases endorphins, which are chemicals that make you feel better. 
  5. Keep healthy relationships: Relationships that support and nurture you can promote the release of hormones like oxytocin, which lowers your heart rate. While tense, unhealthy relationships can do the opposite, increasing your stress and cortisol levels. 
  6. Keep a journal: A record of how you feel can help you cope.
  7. Limit caffeine from coffee, soft drinks or energy drinks.
woman doing breathing exercises to lower stress and cortisol levels

When should you seek help? 

It may be a good idea to seek medical attention if you find that your stress levels feel out of control, or you begin to experience symptoms such as:

  • Excessive weight gain
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Weak bones and fractures 
  • High blood sugar 
  • A persistently fast heartbeat 

Stress and cortisol in summary

Stress raises your cortisol levels, which is a good thing in the short term. It helps you prepare for emergencies and keeps you alert. 

But when stress becomes long-term, it has negative effects on your well-being. And it can compromise your performance and sabotage your fitness goals. 

When you sleep well, exercise regularly and take other stress to reduce your stress levels, it helps you stay healthy. If you notice that your stress levels continue to stay high despite your best efforts, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice.