Here are five ways that you can combat high cortisol hormone levels to improve your mood, energy, weight and wellbeing that will have you looking and feeling your best.
Hormones are a hot topic…and so they should be, for several reasons.
Their actions are essential for our optimal energy, metabolic activity and immunity, and we can feel terrible when imbalanced. In addition, our current work and lifestyle habits are at risk of pushing us into making more of a particular hormone called cortisol (the stress hormone), that can disrupt the efficacy of the other hormones that work together in symphony. Its complexity also causes a fair amount of confusion, so let’s start simply with the hormone cortisol on the path toward your happy energised selves.
The hormone cortisol is released from the adrenal glands when the brain perceives a stressful event, which (with adrenalin) will rapidly mobilise the body’s energy stores for survival – like the Australian surfer Mick Fanning punching a shark. However, these hormones are also released when the brain perceives other daily life stressors such as multiple emails, bills, to-do lists, crises, or simply dispersing your energies between career, family, relationships and self care, and over time, the cortisol level remains higher if our body is not given the chance to relax, or if the stressors are constant.
So how do I know if my cortisol is too high?
Feelings of nervousness, decreased concentration and foggy thinking, drops in blood sugar levels leading to hunger and mood swings; weight gain around the waist and sleep disturbances, especially feeling tired but wired, all point to symptoms of persistently increased cortisol in females.
Most people don’t know this but high cortisol has a significant effect on all the action of other hormones such as thyroid, insulin and sex hormones that can also result in feelings of irritability, low mood, decreased sex drive, further weight gain, and/or night sweats so that some women feel like they are going through menopause.
Cortisol can be tested however has a wide range with levels that fluctuate over the day.
- With a morning blood test preferably around 8 am with a normal level ranging between 135 and 650 nmol/l depending on the laboratory and the assay.
- If high on several occasions or trying to exclude a rare disorder called Cushing’s disease, a 24 hour urinary cortisol can be ordered, and/or a midnight plasma cortisol (a level of <120nmol/L to exclude Cushings) or salivary cortisol (a cut offof <13 nmol/L) concentration, or a dexamethasone suppression test in conjunction with an endocrinologist.
- Other methods used in functional medicine include salivary and urinary cortisol measured at 4 points over the day to give a diurnal or daily picture. (PUT THIS IN AT THE END IF BETTER FLOW FOR THE ARTICLE)
If I suspect a high cortisol, how do I reduce the levels?
Part of our fast paced life is that we are always connected to work, friends, responsibilities and dramas through internet phones and television. A sign that the adrenal glands are desperately ‘trying to keep up’ is feeling ‘tired but wired ‘- or exhausted after a long day, yet still not able to sleep, and/or waking during the night. Unplugging devices, letting go of the days responsibilities and reframing the urgency of the days stressors (during the day with breathing, sitting quietly or meditating for 10 minutes and) unplugging 1 hour before bedtime can work wonders on lowering stress hormones and allowing you to recharge.
7-9 hours of zzzzz ‘s
A significant part of the restorative effect of sleep has been proven to be the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. Not only do we feel more refreshed and happier with a night of 7-9 hours of zzzzz ‘s, we are also more likely to have more energy to exercise, make better food choices and stick to our health goals.
Eating to support the adrenal glands sounds crazy but it is critical, as the hormone cortisol helps regulate blood sugar. We know that having three regular nutritious meals a day, with adequate protein and good fats will teach your body to realise it will be supplied with regular fuel, with no need to release bursts of cortisol that will have you reaching for energy drinks, sweets and coffees when hungry and stressed. Examples for breakfast include porridge/museli with nuts, or eggs, meat or beans, or a smoothie with a protein powder and coconut milk and berries. During the day have fruit, nuts, eggs or vegetables on hand to have as snacks if needed. The added advantage to more balanced cortsiol through food, apart from energy and mood, is that your body will stop storing fuel as fat around your waistline (thinking it may have to use it in a crisis).
Time the days activities in line with the natural day’s cycle because stress hormones are directly linked to the natural circadian rhythms. Cortisol is highest in the morning to provide energy for when the sun comes up for the most vigorous work and activities, and gradually declines throughout the day with the level lowest after sunset when we should be starting to slow down a little. Try switching things so you exercise, perform and schedule your most important tasks in the morning when you are at your best. In the same way, try eating larger meals earlier in the day and eating lighter meals at night to prepare you for winding down and heading toward a lower cortisol and more restful sleep.
Do fun things, preferably including movement. The positive effect of exercise on reducing stress hormones has been proven in both aerobic (jogging, team sports) and less aerobic exercises such as yoga and walking, in helping to keep us to feel more content, energised and lose weight. This means you are making your adrenal glands very happy even with a walk to the bus stop. Interestingly, the benefits are even more enhanced if you actually relax, laugh and enjoy the activity, so what I am suggesting is also making ‘fun’ a priority to witness the added benefits on your health, energy and waistline.
It seems amazing that stress, and the effect on our hormone cortisol can have so much power over us, but in times where we seem to be doing so much more, it makes sense to do what we can to help us achieve what we want with more energy, vitality, fun.