You wake up in a panic because you forgot to turn your alarm on last night and slept in an extra hour. You throw on your clothes, run out the door and get stuck behind a slew of slow people on your commute to work. You dive to your desk, plop on your chair and are flooded by emails and a never-ending to-do list.
That hot, sweaty, jolt that gets your heart pumping and mind racing is a result of our fight and flight hormone — cortisol. In response to stress, your body releases cortisol — keeping us away from danger and alert. However, when our bodies and minds can’t differentiate between a real threat (running from a bear) and a perceived threat (waking up late), our stress hormones remain high, derailing any well-intentioned health and fitness goals we have.
It’s time to take control and manage that stress response with our six easy ways to reduce cortisol.
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol isn’t all bad; it’s necessary for many of our body’s functions including metabolism, immune function, and helping us get out of bed in the morning. It’s what makes us feel wide-eyed and bushy-tailed; ready to take on the day.
In a normal, healthy state, there’s communication between the brain and adrenal glands (two glands that sit on top of your kidneys). Cortisol is produced by these glands when we need to be awake, alert, and ready. A healthy cortisol rhythm looks like this: a spike in the morning waking you up and ready to face the day, a slow decline as the day proceeds with a slight rise after meals, and lower at bedtime to help you get to sleep.
High cortisol symptoms
When cortisol is high for extended periods, such as chronic stress, it leads to a bundle of health risks. Modern life stressors, paired with sedentary living and processed foods, leads to a spiral of stress, cravings (hello, carbs and sugar!) and, eventually, burnout.
- Weight gain: Blood sugar increases to give you quick energy. When not in use, it leads to weight gain, especially around the stomach.
- Increased blood pressure: Heart rate and blood pressure pump to bring blood, nutrients, and energy to your muscles and intensify your senses.
- Foggy brain: Acting out of instinct instead of critical thinking. Chronically high cortisol can cause brain cell erosion.
- Muscle weakness and breakdown: To access quick energy, muscle protein is broken down and used as energy.
- Susceptibility to colds and flus: Cortisol usually helps immunity, but chronically high levels can lead to immune system resistance.
- Depression or anxiety: High cortisol stops serotonin (happy neurotransmitter) and dopamine (reward neurotransmitter) from functioning properly, potentially leading to depression or anxiety.
- Digestive issues: A decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach, leads to cramping, an imbalance in gut bacteria, and inflammation.
Skin deep:Stress can age you. Cortisol inhibits collagen formation, which leads to skin looking less supple and older.
How to lower cortisol
Do: Take rest days
Exercise helps our body and brain, but too much of something isn’t always a good idea. When we exercise too hard, without rest days, our cortisol stays elevated. Particularly if you’re new to exercise or have been feeling tired, aim for a mild or moderate level of 40-60 percent max effort as this won’t impact your cortisol levels too much. Work your way up and assess if maybe what you really need is to rest.
Do: Practice sleep hygiene
The quality, amount, and timing of sleep (such as working night shift) all impact cortisol levels. Break the vicious cycle of stress and lack of sleep by practicing sleep hygiene.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule (sleep and wake close to the same time every day)
- Digitally disconnect (get off screens and devices) at least 30 minutes before bed
- Avoid caffeine and limit alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime
- Eliminate all light from the bedroom (electronic devices, street lights, etc.)
- Do a light stretch or meditation before bed
Do: Meditate and restorative yoga
Deep breathing is a simple activity that you can do anywhere, anytime. People who breathe or meditate on a consistent basis show a reduction in cortisol. Different types of yoga have also proved to help manage stress. Even a few minutes a day can shift your perspective and reduce your stress hormones.
Nutrition influences cortisol for better or for worse. Eating regular, balanced meals, and focusing on whole foods can level out your stress hormones.
- Carbs: Not all carbs are nutritionally equal. Limit refined carbs like white bread, pasta, rice, cereal, sugar, and sweets, and pair healthy carbs with a protein or good fat.
- Restrictive diets: Not eating enough will put your body in a stressed state and set you up for fat storage.
- Alcohol: Alcohol has proven to increase the stress response in both men and women. Aim to limit your intake and choose healthier options.
- Processed foods: Additives, preservatives, and harmful fats increase inflammation which can impact hormones.
Reduce: Adrenal stress
Remember we mentioned those adrenal glands that live on top of your kidneys? Adrenal fatigue is the theory that your adrenal glands get burnt out and can’t produce quite enough of the hormones you need to feel good. This theory has as yet not been 100 percent proven, so it’s best to focus on the foundational treatments as your most powerful tool (diet, stress management, exercise, and sleep).
Adaptogenic herbs (rhodiola, ginseng, ashwagandha) are thought to enhance our ability to cope with the physiological stress in our environment. As they are unproven remedies and difficult to regulate, they may leave you with side effects. Take the more regular and careful route and support your adrenal function with these common nutrients:
- Vitamin C: Leafy greens (spinach, cabbage, kale), citrus fruit (lemon and orange), tomatoes, kiwi fruit
- Vitamin B5: Red meat, poultry, seafood, whole grains, legumes
- Magnesium: Legumes, seafood, nuts and seeds
Reduce: The superhero complex
Contemporary western society celebrates non-stop living and undervalues self-care and downtime. In fact, it’s a cultural attitude that’s contributing to us being chronically sick and less productive. Consider the increase in obesity and autoimmune disease in the last three decades.
Learn to push yourself in the right ways and let go of the things that don’t help you work towards your intention. Ask yourself if there’s something in your environment that you can change.
- Learn to say no and cut back on unnecessary scheduled activities
- Detox your life, less stuff = less chaos
- Set aside a day to focus on friends and family
- Meal plan and prep
- Delegate tasks
Don’t sweat the small stuff but remember small stuff counts. Learn how to build healthy habits that make for stress-free living — sign up for the 8fit app today.