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What is Cortisol? What to Know About the Stress Hormone

ReachMD Healthcare Image
03/23/2023
nytimes.com

Some companies offer at-home cortisol tests, which typically involve finger pricks or saliva swabs. But experts instead recommend talking to a primary care doctor, who may refer you to an endocrinologist. “I’m not one for all this home kit testing,” Dr. Rao said. “My advice is, don’t test in that way.”

One reason for the caution is that physicians try to obtain a comprehensive picture of how your cortisol levels ebb and flow before determining whether there may be any issues, said Dr. Mihail Zilbermint, an associate professor of clinical medicine specializing in endocrinology at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“It’s not hard to test cortisol levels, but it’s not easy to interpret,” he added.

Can you lower your cortisol levels?

Some small studies have suggested that yoga and mindfulness interventions like meditation may help lower cortisol levels, Dr. Sagarwala said, adding that even setting aside five minutes a day to relax and reset the mind might be beneficial. He recommended the “five senses” exercise, which can ground you in a moment of stress: List five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

Exercise can also be helpful for regulating cortisol, Dr. Bennett said, especially moderate physical activity like jogging or cycling. Those movements prompt your body to mirror your stress response, raising your heart rate and then lowering it once you stop working out. That cycle effectively trains our bodies to activate and shut down our stress response appropriately.

People should identify the stress reduction methods that work best for them, Dr. Fogelman said. A few minutes of box breathing, for example, might soothe one person but not another. Once you find a strategy for alleviating stress, your cortisol levels can potentially become more stable, she added; this is true even for people who have been exposed to intense, long-term stress.

“Stress is not a bad word,” Dr. Fricchione said. “Just being a living organism means that there’s going to be stress.”

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Schedule1 Mar 2024