Have you had your cortisol levels checked? It may be time to do so.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It is important to understand how to balance this hormone for optimal health.
Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands located on your kidneys. It is one of the main stress response chemicals with adrenaline being the other. Both are responsible for maintaining balance in your body.
When it is in a healthy rhythm, cortisol is highest in the morning to give us the energy to get our day started, minimize inflammation and boost our immune response to peak levels. It is naturally lowest at night to help us wind our bodies down into rest-and-repair mode. When this natural cycle is disrupted, we can end up with dysfunction of cortisol levels such as:
High cortisol symptoms:
- Sleep problems (insomnia, waking in the night)
- Blood sugar issues (including sugar cravings, metabolic syndrome, PCOS, and diabetes)
- Weight gain (increased fat storage and belly fat)
- Immune system imbalances leading to more frequent infections, reactivation of old viruses, allergies, inflammation, and even autoimmune disease
- Poor digestion and impaired absorption of nutrients
- Hormonal imbalances
- Decreased memory, focus, and willpower
- Mood swings
- High blood pressure
- Racing heart or palpitations
- Flush face
- Increased urination
Low cortisol symptoms:
- Difficulty waking in the morning
- Low blood pressure
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Weight changes
- Salt cravings
- Anxiety and depression
- Dizzy or faint
- Feel “weird”
Most chronic and long-term health issues like obesity, digestive issues, diabetes and even cancer can be linked to disturbances in our natural cortisol patterns.
Let’s look at the range of some low or high cortisol health scenarios:
1. Cortisol and Weight Gain
Persistently high or low cortisol levels can cause you to experience changes in your body weight. High levels of cortisol can stimulate your appetite and lead to obesity. Excess weight in this situation is often to carried on the upper body and a round face or excess fat tissue around the neck may develop.
2. Cortisol and Hypertension
High cortisol levels may increase your risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension) or high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). Low levels of cortisol can have the opposite effect and cause decreased appetite or significant weight loss. Loss of appetite can lead some people to become dehydrated or develop low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) due to poor fluid intake. Symptoms include increased thirst, headache or dizziness.
3. Cortisol and Skin
High cortisol levels in your blood can contribute to skin issues like thinning or easily bruising skin and stretch marks that are pink or purple in color on the arms, buttocks, legs, stomach or breasts. On the flip side, abnormally low levels of cortisol may cause patches of increased pigmentation (hyperpigmentation) on your knees or elbows.
4. Cortisol and Sleep
Cortisol is a part of your sleeping and waking cycle. Imbalanced levels can cause excessive tiredness or fatigue that can be long-lasting (chronic) and may cause sore or weak muscles. Men with high cortisol levels can experience impotence and may also be accompanied by decreased sexual desire. Cortisol imbalances in women can lead to the development of an irregular menstrual cycle, which can make it difficult for women to become pregnant.
5. Cortisol and Diet
Studies have revealed that eating balanced meals and participating in physical activity 3-5 times a week can help maintain cortisol balance. But in today’s go-go-go world, chronic stress, can over time, cause the adrenal glands to become overworked which in turn effects cortisol levels. And there may be times when this process cannot be dealt with diet and lifestyle changes alone. This is when a hormonal imbalance needs to be fully evaluated and corrected in conjunction with a customized nutrition and fitness program that meets your unique needs.
How to Reduce Cortisol
Lowering your cortisol levels requires attention paid to a few things that with some management, can prove to be successful. Here are some tips:
1. Look at your sleep schedule
Cortisol regulates the production of melatonin, which is important not only for sleep but for detoxification and immunity. High cortisol levels suppress melatonin and that means you may not only experience insomnia and other sleep issues, but you are increasing your risk of inflammatory conditions like diabetes and cancer.
How much sleep do you need? At least seven hours of mostly uninterrupted sleep for at least two weeks can begin to reset your cortisol levels. Also, make sure you are going to bed and waking up at the same time to create a regular sleep cycle.
2. Get rid of EMF’s
And remember — we live in a world of electronic devices full of EMFs and bombardment of blue light. Using ear plugs to get rid of white noise, silencing your phone and turning off your computer a couple of hours before going to bed is helpful to ensure quality sleep. This practice will make a huge difference in controlling your brains internal clock that tells you when to sleep. 
It is important to remember that timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol for better or for worse. 
3. Eat the right foods, at the right time
Believe it or not, that low carb diet we are all into these days can increase cortisol — if it is too low. You may benefit more from eating a small number of healthy carbs three to five hours before going to bed. And in general, eating just before bedtime can affect not only how well you sleep but also your cortisol levels. Try not eating within three hours of settling in for a night’s rest. What you eat and when you eat can have a profound effect on your cortisol response.
4. Plan on exercising at the ideal times
Studies show that exercise can help to reduce cortisol levels. However, the opposite can be true if you over exercise or exercise late at night. Doing intense exercise earlier in the day increases cortisol levels immediately following exercise but it can have positive effects of reducing cortisol levels in the evening and before bedtime. 
5. Relax and reset
It is important to learn some relaxation strategies, especially after a long, hard work day/week in order to help reset both mentally and emotionally. This can lead to healthier cortisol levels and a healthier YOU in general. Even 15 minutes can make a difference, but I suggest to my patients that taking that walk in nature or getting into an easy yoga routine, are great ways to handle cortisol issues.
6. Practice deep breathing
Deep breathing helps to lower stress and is an easy habit anyone can do anywhere. Studies show that this simple technique can help to substantially lower cortisol levels. Who would have guessed? Read my article on how to effectively practice deep breathing for relaxation. Other helpful techniques that incorporate deep breathing for relaxation are yoga and tai chi. 
7. Avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day
A great cup of coffee or tea can be a sure way to get some energy and also some pleasure in life. But both, along with chocolate, can keep you up at night. Caffeine can affect your cortisol levels and disrupt sleep patterns so be mindful of when you have it. I have also noted that many of my patients report that they slept better and felt better all-around when they limited their alcohol consumption, especially in the evening. 
8. Eat clean
Chronic inflammation is a huge trigger of cortisol imbalances along with blood sugar balance. Simply put — a diet of processed foods, poor-quality fats, and too much sugar can cause inflammation that leads to chronically overactivated cortisol production. 
9. Find happiness
When was the last time you found time to do something that really made you happy? Pursuing things that bring you happiness and satisfaction can help to lower your cortisol levels. Hobbies such as art, music, gardening and spending time outdoors can provide a sense of wellbeing and pleasure which will help keep cortisol down. It’s time to develop those hobbies you’ve been dreaming about! 
10. Spend time with family and friends
Having strong relationships with family and friends can help you to manage stress and lower your cortisol levels. However, at times, these relationships can be the cause of your stress. Learning to deal with conflicts and seeking positive outcomes will provide stronger bonds and emotional wellbeing. Having more friends and family in your life can be a source of great happiness and support.
Even furry companions such as canine pets can prove to be helpful in lowering cortisol levels. 
11. Add Essential oils
Some essential oils are shown to harness stress and excess cortisol levels. Such oils include lavender, cinnamon leaf, cedarwood, eucalyptus, and ylang-ylang. The aroma of these essential oils can actually pass right through the blood/brain barrier which has a direct effect on areas of the brain controlling your feelings of stress and anxiety which influence your cortisol response.
12. Take supplements for stress
Studies show that taking certain supplements can help to manage cortisol levels and stress. Supplements such as fish oil and other adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Cordyceps, and Reishi have been shown to lower cortisol levels within 60 days. Below are some of my favorite supplements for restoring cortisol levels.
I recommend a few supplements to my patients that can help keep cortisol levels in good balance overall and nourish the adrenals as well.
One of my favorites is PS 150 which is a Phosphatidylserine supplement that has been found to naturally block the harmful effects of cortisol. The body produces very little of it, so supplementation can ensure you are getting enough to maintain overall good health.
Ready to get your cortisol in balance but feel unsure about where to start? LET’S CONNECT — Testing is usually the first step and I can help with that. A simple cortisol saliva test is one way to get an accurate reading of your cortisol levels and way to monitor your progress over time. Then we can discuss some great protocols that can help you achieve balance – naturally.
In the meantime, read some of my articles to get some tips to help manage your stress and/or adrenal fatigue.
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