Living a stress-free life seems like a far-flung dream. As far back as Ancient Greek civilisations, we’ve been expressing concern over stress. Indeed, the Greeks invented stoicism at least in part to help manage stress, anxiety and depression. In current times, the global pandemic – with its enormous health and socio-economic impact – has seen stress hit its highest spikes in decades. Gov. uk cited a 10% increase in psychological distress among adults over 18, thanks to Covid-19. And the implications of this have been clear to see, with people at their wits ends calling for the Great Resignation, ‘quiet quitting‘ and struggling with burnout.
So it’s unsurprising, given *TikTok’s role as a modern-day guidebook for life, whether it’s offering beauty hacks or advice for hopping on celibacy 2.0, that app-users would be looking to tackle stress. And lo and behold, a new hashtag #HowToReduceCortisol, is swiftly becoming TikTok’s catch-all solution to stress management.
‘Cortisol is one of the many hormones in our body which helps regulate our internal systems. It is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it plays a major role in our bodies’ responses to stressful events – also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response,’ explains private GP, Dr Daniel Gordon. In moments of stress, high concentrations of cortisol are released into our bloodstream from our adrenal glands, and these have many effects on the body, such as increasing our blood sugar levels, mobilising energy stores and regulating our heart rates and blood pressure.
Overall, cortisol serves an important function and its presence in the body is pretty crucial. The primary role that cortisol plays, is helping to keep us safe in dangerous situations. Increasing blood sugar and pushing our heart rate would all be essential in a moment of fight or flight. In fact, some studies have even found that influxes of cortisol can in fact help to reduce levels of ‘negative’ feelings including anger and upset. As Dr Hana Patel, GP specialist in sleep and mental health, explains: ‘During stressful situations, a raised cholesterol can be protective in helping mood and manage stressful situations.’
In non-threatening situations, however, high levels of cortisol can have slightly more detrimental effects, notes Now Patient pharmacist Navin Khoslam, who lists an increase of blood pressure, disrupted sleep and diabetes as possible health concerns. ‘Managing and balancing this hormone is crucial for both your future and present health,’ she adds.
In an era of personalised healthcare and biohacking, where technophiles can assess their blood sugar levels via continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) applied to the arm, or identify allergies at the swipe of an app, it follows that there’s a growing interest in how to control one’s cortisol levels. But is TikTok really the answer?
Take a quick look at TikTok and you’ll find the hashtags #cortisollevels and #howtoreducecortisol have a combined 140 million views, while Google has reported a 400% spike in searches for ‘how to fix cortisol levels’ over the past 12 months. Aiming to facilitate the ‘perfect’ life, there’s a new breed of content creators that claim to have the answer to cortisol reduction, notionally for improved sleep, sharper focus, and lower levels of stress. Videos include tips for changing the time you drink a morning coffee, opting for low-impact exercises over high-intensity workouts, and advice for which supplements to take. With over 1.6 million ‘likes’, avid holistic health creator Mikaela Wilson attributes the positive impacts (‘being less depressed’ and ‘visible abs’) of lowering her cortisol level to five simple tips, including eating a protein/fat heavy breakfast and reducing caffeine intake.
With a National Health Service that’s seriously stretched and lengthy waiting times in GP surgeries, it’s no wonder we’re seeing an increase in the volume and prominence of so-called ‘health experts’ online, or as it’s quickly becoming known, the ‘TikTok health clinic’. Sharing an abundant stream of free, bite-sized information, often layered with catchy music, Tiktok users’ health advice is an alluring alternative to traditional healthcare. But for every alleged ‘expert-supported’ piece of content, there’s potentially another that might contain misinformation, and in some cases, dangerous advice with serious health implications. Let’s not forget those videos during the pandemic which promoted bleach as a cure for Covid-19, or creators who advocated the ingestion of chlorine dioxide to cleanse the body of parasites. If you didn’t know it already, memorise it now: not everything you see online should be taken as gospel.
Amid the rise of TikTok health and wellbeing influencers sharing medical advice, many without the formal education and legal licenses, the line between medical information and anecdotal experience is becoming blurred, leaving room for much error and misunderstanding. ‘TikTok has become a platform where people can raise awareness and share their knowledge on different things, from gut health to ADHD. However, it is important to check whether the advice being given is accurate and reliable,’ says Khoslam. ‘This is in reference to the platform as a whole – some advice given on health is incorrect and therefore making individual efforts to research further into this advice before changing your own behaviours is crucial,’ Khoslam adds.
Dr Patel agrees, warning that when it comes to advice regarding lowering cortisol levels, TikTok viewers should be discerning about so-called ‘expert’ claims that bodily functions, such as adrenal fatigue, have a one-size-fits-all solution. ‘It’s difficult to recommend and offer targeted treatment solutions,’ he says, for such a medical issue. ‘For conditions such as this, people who feel that they are suffering from the condition may explore treatments from unregulated sources, leaving them open to being vulnerable.’
It’s worth remembering that TikTok, while universally accessible, doesn’t factor in individual differences. Health advice often lacks nuance and doesn’t consider a person’s previous medical conditions and lifestyle. You only need look at the comments section of #HowToReduceCortisol on TikTok to see the differing experiences users have had when they’ve attempted to follow other TikTokers’ guidance. ‘I’ve just cut coffee entirely. Can’t believe what it was doing to my anxiety. I feel so much better,’ reads one user who followed the advice. ‘Eating breakfast for the first time in years has literally changed my life,’ reads another.
But, for every positive comment, there are countless others citing adverse experiences after attempting to reduce their cortisol levels. ‘I took magnesium supplements, they made me VERY poorly. Always speak to your DR first … if you can…,’ read one, while another noted: ‘Blue blockers don’t actually work just so everyone knows! Save that money!’
While exercise and changing the time of your morning coffee does impact cortisol levels, according to Dr Patel, it’s not so easy to manage the levels entirely. The idea that we can control hormone levels largely suggests the onus is on the individual, which isn’t entirely true. After all, cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, rising in the morning and dipping into late afternoon, due to myriad external factors, whether it’s the frustration of being stuck in traffic, to a sudden work deadline that has arisen. Additionally, the very implication that one can reduce their stress levels can be, inadvertently, stress-inducing for many people.
Instead of focussing our efforts on reducing our cortisol levels, Dr Gordon argues our aim should be ‘to maintain our cortisol within a healthy range, but doing this in any meaningful way is tricky’. The natural fluctuation of cortisol, he says ‘is an important daily rhythm which helps keep our metabolism in balance and contributes to our daily sleep-wake cycle. ‘Rather than specifically trying to reduce cortisol levels, it is more important to lead as healthy a lifestyle and manage chronic stress as best as possible,’ he adds. To do this, Dr Gordon suggests focusing on regular exercise, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet and meditating. ‘Providing you don’t have a specific medical condition which raises your cortisol, looking after your health in this way will ensure that your cortisol levels are kept optimal,’ he notes.
It’s important to also highlight that low cortisol levels are equally unhealthy to the body as high levels. ‘Having a cortisol lower than the healthy range can have serious negative health consequences,’ cautions Dr Gordon, who cites common health issues such as continual tiredness, weight loss, muscle weakness and abdominal pain. After all, as a primary stress hormone, cortisol improves the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissue, subsequently curbing functions that the body naturally deems nonessential or harmful in fight-or-flight situations. ‘If we are healthy and the stress is fleeting, cortisol will have an anti-inflammatory effect,’ Rhian Stephenson, nutritionist, naturopath and founder of Artah, adds.
Coined in 2000 by Marc Feldman, the term ‘Munchausen By Internet’ has become a phenomenon in which people portray a false narrative of suffering from health issues. Paired with the dangers of self-diagnosing, the health space on TikTok is a minefield to navigate. And while many issues may be dubbed negative on social media, from sweating to vaginal discharge, the majority are likely merely evidence of a well-functioning body (of course, if there’s a medical issue you’re concerned about, do seek medical advice from your GP). Amid the growing popularity of #howtoreducecortisol content online, Stephenson argues it’s crucial users don’t get swept up in a ‘high cortisol pandemic’.
We live in an era of maximised control whereby many things, from meeting a possible life partner to monitoring blood sugar levels, can be puppeteered, analysed and tweaked at the touch of a button. While it’s beneficial to have a better understanding and awareness of one’s health, it’s also borne a society which now boasts a fierce fascination with eradicating anything dubbed ‘negative’ from life, including stress. But stress, like most temporary states of mind, isn’t all bad and can be a natural human response to high intensity situations. Perhaps we should spend less time trying to control our stress levels, and spend more time understanding our triggers as the first port of call.
*ELLE UK reached out to TikTok and they declined to comment.
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