- Tired and fatigued during the day but can’t sleep at night?
- Gaining belly fat?
- Constantly getting sick?
- Having trouble concentrating?
- Wondering where your sex drive has gone?
If you answered yes, to most of these questions your cortisol might be chronically elevated.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Like all hormones, it operates on the “Goldilocks Principle” – not too much, not too little, just right. Cortisol regulates mood, memory, body clock, and controls inflammation. It is probably most well known for its role in the stress response.
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol helps you mount a sustained response to stress by keeping energy levels up, heart rate and blood pressure elevated. This is appropriate if you are undergoing physical stress like running a marathon. But, if the stress is of the psychological type, such as work pressures or family conflicts then all the extra energy cortisol is providing is not getting burned off. This has serious implications for long-term health.
The problem with too much cortisol
“Stress makes you fat and stupid” Dr Shawn Talbott, author The Cortisol Connection.
Harsh but true – when you are subjected to chronic stress for long periods of time.
Cortisol increases your appetite to maintain the energy you may need to run away or fight. You’ll be constantly ravenous, and you’ll crave sugary, fatty foods for an instant energy hit. This, in turn, will start to cause havoc with your insulin levels. Do this long enough, and it’s destination diabetes. Your body lays down extra abdominal fat as a buffer against future stressful events.
High cortisol is toxic to the brain and can destroy neurons leading to depression and anxiety. Continued high exposure to cortisol makes the brain resistant, and even though cortisol is there, the cells don’t respond to it. This can result in memory, fatigue and psychological problems.
Other conditions associated with chronically elevated cortisol include irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, recurrent yeast infections, lowered immunity autoimmune disease, chronic pain, thyroid conditions and insomnia.
Aside from symptoms, how do you know if you have high cortisol? You can test cortisol in the blood or saliva. Cortisol has a daily rhythm, so it’s best to check it throughout the day to get a clearer picture of what is going on. In my clinic, I prefer to use salivary testing. It is affordable, and you don’t need to get jabbed in the arm. Always a bonus in my book!
What can you do to calm down your cortisol?
So far it’s been all bad news. However, the story can have a happy ending. The good news is there are many lifestyle things you can do to restore cortisol balance. None of them involves quitting your job and moving to a tropical island. Unless you want to.
11 ways to lower cortisol naturally
Leisurely walks in nature
Most of us intuitively know we feel better spending time in natural environments. Research shows that higher on the “nature o meter” the environment is the more it lowers stress. This includes objective measures of salivary cortisol and amylase and subjective measures of joy. Highest results were seen in time spent in forests/bushland, followed by parks and lastly urban environments. The natural environment appeared more able to reduce the impacts of psychological stress, a type of stress common in modern lifestyles.
You already know exercise is essential for your wellbeing. During a workout, cortisol rises (especially if the session is longer than an hour) but post workout it declines. The more regularly you exercise, the better your body adapts and keeps cortisol on the straight and narrow. For optimal cortisol management from your exercise either keep sessions around 45 minutes or ensure you alternate recovery days with longer/harder sessions.
Naps are not just for Nanna A mid-afternoon nap has been shown to decrease cortisol as well as improve focus and concentration. It is particularly beneficial if you’ve slept poorly the previous night. Regular naps are an effective stress management technique. Winston Churchill prioritised a daily afternoon nap during the World War II Blitz. You probably don’t get much more stressful than that!
Set social media boundaries
If you’re feeling stressed avoid checking your socials until you are relaxed. A 2017 study showed that people who had just experienced a stressful event and spent time on Facebook took longer for their cortisol levels to return to baseline. This is thought to be due to the stimulating effect of social media. Other studies have also reported a drop in cortisol levels when people take a social media sabbatical.
Treating yourself to a massage is often thought of as a way to promote relaxation. Research shows up to a 31% reduction in cortisol while other research suggests the benefits are more modest. This may be due to the type of massage – relaxation versus remedial. In any case, there seems to benefit.
Head off to the comedy club. Laughter is one of the best medicines for stress. A hearty chuckle releases the feel-good endorphins, lowers cortisol and improves immune function. Time to locate your funny bone!
Meditation & Yoga
The relaxation effect and focus on being in the present moment (i.e., not working about stuff in the future) mean that a daily yoga or meditation practice helps get your cortisol back in balance. This can be particularly useful in the evening to prevent elevated cortisol from interfering with your sleep hormone, melatonin.
With their finely tuned sense of smell dogs can detect “Eau de cortisol”. Dog owners may have noticed their dogs trying to cheer them up when they are stressed or anxious. Therapy dogs help people manage PTSD and anxiety. Spending time with our furry friends increases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and lowers cortisol.
Lowering cortisol by sitting in a heated wooden box may seem counterintuitive. During the sauna, because of the heat stress, cortisol will rise. However, like exercise, the benefits come after the session where cortisol will return to a lower level. Most significant benefits are seen with regular saunas as you train your body to better adapt and recover from the stress. The reduced cortisol after the session results in lowered blood pressure, heart rate and improved immunity. If you’ve not used a sauna before and are highly stressed keep the sessions shorter at first and build up.
Meals with protein
Stress often causes us to reach for the sugary, fatty snacks. Hello, doughnuts and hot chips! While these provide a short, sugary, feel-good rush, it’s not helpful for cortisol control and our waistlines. Proteins with a high ratio of the serotonin precursor amino acid tryptophan are a better choice. They improve your mood and reduce cortisol. If you have sleep issues consuming these in your evening meal can improve sleep. Foods with the highest tryptophan include eggs, whey protein, cottage cheese, yoghurt, salmon, chicken, turkey, tofu. Seeds, nuts, avocado and spinach, have a smaller amount but are a healthy addition to any diet.
Green tea contains caffeine which raises cortisol, (albeit about a third less than an espresso coffee). But it also includes plant chemicals which inhibit the enzyme 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (phew, what a mouthful!) which controls cortisol production and has a particular role in the creation of belly fat. Theanine in green tea also helps relax the nervous system. Bonus!
Healthy habits help manage stress
You don’t need to incorporate all these in your life to get your cortisol under control. But it should be fairly easy to include some of these into your routine. The critical point is you do need to do them regularly to gain the benefits. Choose a couple and commit to making it a habit. A small investment will give a significant return on your wellbeing.
Norelle Hentschel is a degree qualified Naturopath and operates a clinic in Crows Nest, North Sydney. She enjoys helping people sleep better and can assist with a broad range of health conditions or general health maintenance.
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