Are you overly stressed, tired, and gaining weight despite not changing your diet or workout frequency? Your cortisol levels may be out of order. More specifically, your cortisol levels may be too high.
Cortisol is commonly known as the primary “stress hormone” due to it being one of the main hormones that are released when we’re under any sort of pressure and our evolutionary-based “fight or flight response” kicks in. Although cortisol is mostly thought of as a negative thing because it contributes to acne, weight gain or high blood pressure — there’s actually a lot more to cortisol levels than just our stress response and its unwanted symptoms. We need it to live.
Cortisol production is a necessity for life and helps to keep us motivated, awake and responsive to our environment. Constantly having abnormally high circulating cortisol levels can be dangerous and contribute to long-term problems. Long-term use of corticosteroids and chronic stress are two of the biggest contributors to high cortisol. Chronic, high cortisol production is tied to symptoms and ailments including weight gain, anxiety, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances and fertility problems, in addition to many other problems.
The good news is there are many natural ways to get your cortisol levels in check. For instance, some adaptogen herbs are known to lower cortisol, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Switch To An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
High or low blood sugar levels (especially hypoglycemia, having low blood sugar) and high levels of inflammation are common contributors to high cortisol levels and other hormonal imbalances. An Anti-Inflammatory diet is usually low in processed foods and high in antioxidants, fibre and other essential nutrients is key to balancing hormones and controlling your cravings. The same diet can also help with adrenal support, supporting a healthy body weight, boosting energy during the day and helping you sleep better at night.
Some of the most significant dietary contributors to inflammation, which you should attempt to exclude to avoid high cortisol levels include:
- High-sugar, high-glycemic diet (Often based around packaged foods, refined grain products, soda drinks and snacks)
- Consuming high amounts of refined and trans fats
- Consuming too much caffeine and alcohol
- Low intake of foods high in micronutrients and antioxidants
- Not enough fiber (which makes it hard to balance blood sugar)
- Not enough healthy fats or protein (which can lead to hunger, weight gain and high blood sugar)
Instead, switch to a low-glycemic (GI) diet, include healthy fats and proteins with every meal, and make sure to get enough fibre and phytonutrients by eating plenty fresh or dried fruits and veggies. Some of the most useful foods for lowering cortisol and stabilising blood sugar include vegetables, fruits, coconut or olive oil, nuts, seeds, lean proteins like eggs, fish and grass-fed beef and probiotic foods (like yogurt, kefir or cultured veggies).
Learn To Manage Your Stress
Modern-day lifestyle and chronic stress are now synonymous and are now linked with just about every health problem out there. Experiencing stress affects everyone to at least to some degree and impacts health by sending chemical signals around the body. Stress invokes a response in the heart and blood vessels, immune system, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs, and brain. Stress has the ability to increase breathing, heart rate, pain and muscle tension, your appetite (including overeating), and sleep-related problems.
Luckily, the natural stress relievers listed below are proven to help lower cortisol and decrease the negative impact stress has on your health:
- Meditation or “mindfulness” has been shown to help train the brain and body to turn off the stress response and promote more relaxation. And these benefits are possible without negatively affecting alertness, concentration or memory. Participating in a regular “mindfulness-based stress reduction” program also offers significant reductions in cortisol and stress-related symptoms or diseases. Using meditative methods can also improve brain and heart health while bolstering your immune system.
- Acupuncture: Trusted since the ancient times it has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Acupuncture treatments help to naturally alleviate control stress and reduce symptoms like muscle or joint pain, headaches, fertility problems, troubling sleeping, and poor circulation.
- Deep breathing exercises: Controlled, deep breaths can help to turn down the sympathetic nervous system and kick in the body’s natural relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing is an easy technique to learn on your own and practice throughout the day to relieve muscle tension and anxiety. Controlled breathing techniques have been a staple in Eastern health practices for centuries and are becoming more popular in the West, too, thanks to emerging studies and books describing their benefits — such as Dr. Herbert Benson’s book “The Relaxation Response.”
- Spending time in nature/outdoors: Studies show that the environment settings play a role in stress reduction, and being in nature is a well-documented way to promote relaxation. Try going for walks or runs outside (especially barefoot running or walking, a practice called “earthing“), spending time at the ocean, walking through forests, gardening at home, or doing other things outdoors and away from technology to reduce anxiety.
According to research published by Harvard Medical School, regular exercise (about 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week of moderate to vigorous activity) is one of the best ways to manage stress, balance hormones, sleep better and aid normal metabolic functions (like balancing blood sugar levels). The key is to avoid overtraining and overexerting yourself, which can actually cause even more cortisol to be released.
Exercise benefits hormone levels because, although it temporarily increases adrenaline and cortisol production, it generally helps bring cortisol back down to normal levels afterward. This cycle helps your body better handle stress and gives your autonomic nervous system (the one that controls your stress and relaxation responses) its own workout. This means the next time your stress hormones rise due to a perceived threat, you should be able to lower cortisol levels more easily, since your body becomes primed and adapts to this during physical activity
Use Some Essential Relaxation Oils
Essential oils are also helpful for fighting stress and balancing hormones. Essential oils, including lavender, clary sage, frankincense and bergamot, contain potent, active ingredients that have been shown to naturally lower cortisol, combat anxiety, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and/or help with sleep and digestive functions.
Try inhaling some of the best essential oils for hormones, diffusing them in your home, making bath soaks or body washes using your favourite kinds, or rubbing them directly into your skin when mixed properly with a carrier oil (like coconut or jojoba oil). If you’re dealing with side effects of high cortisol, including acne, indigestion or bloated stomach, certain essential oils like lemon or peppermint can help with that, too.
Getting Enough Rest
Getting enough sleep helps us control cortisol production, but having high cortisol levels can make it hard to rest. In people with normal circadian rhythms, cortisol levels rise during the early morning hours and then drop very low at night prior to sleep and during sleep. People who develop high cortisol levels can wind up feeling the opposite: wired and anxious at night, but then fatigued during the day — thus, they can’t sleep properly at the times that they are supposed to. On the reverse end, sleep deprivation results in higher levels of cortisol just the following evening.
This overactivity of the adrenal glands is one of the biggest signs of Cushing’s disease or adrenal fatigue and is usually tied to stress and hormonal imbalances. By taking the steps listed above, you should be able to rest more easily. Ideally, you should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night to reset your circadian rhythms and bring hormones back to balance.