How cortisol affects gut health

Cortisol is a vital steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Although often referred to as the "stress hormone", its role extends beyond the body’s stress response, influencing metabolism, immune function and inflammation regulation. 

Because elevated cortisol levels can potentially lead to inflammation and disrupt the delicate balance of your gut bacteria, it can also have a profound impact on your gut health—even contributing to chronic digestive issues like IBS and IBD. 

With many of us experiencing daily stress, it’s important to understand how to maintain balanced cortisol levels not only for optimal digestive function but your overall wellness.  

What Is Cortisol? 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands. Its primary functions include regulating metabolism, influencing blood sugar levels, managing inflammation and aiding in memory enhancement. Following a circadian rhythm, it typically peaks in the morning to kickstart the body's wakefulness and declines throughout the day to facilitate restful sleep. 

Cortisol acts as the body's primary stress hormone. When stress arises, cortisol levels surge to provide the body with immediate energy by releasing stored glucose. This stress response helps you to cope with challenges, but prolonged or chronic stress can disrupt cortisol levels, leading to irregular fluctuations that may impact your overall health, including gut function and immune response.

The Relationship Between Cortisol and Gut Health 

Cortisol and gut health are closely connected. Elevated cortisol levels, typically triggered by prolonged stress, pose a significant risk to gut health, increasing gut permeability and allowing harmful substances to penetrate the gut lining.  

This breach triggers an immune response, leading to inflammation and potentially contributing to chronic digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Cortisol’s influence on the gut can also extend beyond inflammation. Dysregulated cortisol levels may affect gut motility and secretion, contributing to irregular bowel movements and/or discomfort.

Cortisol and Gut Microbiome 

The gut microbiome is made up of a diverse community of trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi and other single-celled organisms that reside in the digestive tract. These microbes play a pivotal role in various bodily functions, including digestion and immune system regulation. A balanced gut microbiome is essential for maintaining overall health, aiding in nutrient absorption and protecting against harmful pathogens, making it a critical component of the body's ecosystem. 

Elevated levels of cortisol can significantly impact the gut microbiome, compromising its diversity and functionality. Such disruptions, known as “dysbiosis”, can manifest as a range of digestive issues, including bloating, irregular bowel movements, and abdominal discomfort.

The Signs of High Cortisol Levels 

Symptoms of high cortisol levels can include persistent fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, impaired cognitive function and weakened immunity. As a reflection of our inner health, the skin can also show signs of stress through breakouts, dullness or increased sensitivity. Wondering if stress is affecting your complexion? Dive into our blog on how stress affects our skin for further insights.

How To Lower Cortisol Levels & Improve Gut Health 

There is evidence to suggest that lowering cortisol levels can help to nurture gut health. By implementing lifestyle changes, dietary adjustments and stress-relief techniques, you can support healthy cortisol levels and promote a healthy gut. 

  • Stress Management: Activities like meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises or mindfulness practices can reduce stress and regulate cortisol secretion. 

  • Adequate Sleep: Quality sleep supports proper cortisol regulation and overall health. Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and create a calming bedtime routine. 

  • Balanced Diet: Opt for whole, nutrient-dense foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. Limit caffeine, sugar and processed foods, which can spike cortisol levels. 

  • Probiotics and Prebiotics: A daily supplement containing both prebiotics and probiotics can help to support gut health by promoting a diverse and balanced microbiome, aiding in digestion and contributing to a more regulated cortisol response. 

  • Regular Exercise: Regular physical activity can help to manage stress and regulate cortisol levels, while promoting endorphins—aka the “happy hormone”. 

Final Thoughts: The Ties Between Cortisol & Gut Health 

Prioritising stress management, adopting healthy lifestyle choices and nurturing the gut through mindful dietary habits can significantly impact both cortisol levels and gut health. Being under a constant cloud of stress can be detrimental, so ensure you’re taking care of yourself and seek help from a health professional if you’re concerned about high cortisol levels. 

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