What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone released by your adrenal glands in response to different types of stress (mental and physical). Cortisol helps regulate blood pressure, energy levels, and the body’s circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle. It also plays a role in reducing inflammation, promoting tissue repair, and increasing blood sugar. Cortisol can save your life when it comes to ‘fight or flight’ scenarios, but it can also cause some serious bodily harm if increased levels are sustained.
So, now that we know what it is we can talk about how it works.
Cortisol is naturally released in the morning at around 6:00 AM to help the body and mind wake up with energy and drive. Levels are supposed to decline throughout the day so that you can have a restful night’s sleep. However, physical and mental factors can work to sustain high cortisol levels throughout the day. Factors such as prolonged exercise, food restriction, lack of sleep, and any event that brings stressful thoughts can have this affect.
High cortisol can lead to decreased muscle growth/repair, increased inflammation, and interrupted digestion and sleep. Over time, chronically high cortisol can slow the body’s metabolism and negatively affect athletic performance. Luckily, there are some simple lifestyle and nutrition changes that can be made to manage stress and normalize cortisol levels.
4 Steps To Manage Cortisol:
1) Include whole grains and high fiber fruits and vegetables
Cortisol is made from cholesterol, which is also used to make other hormones in the body. Since all of the hormones work together it’s important for them to be in balance. One way to help balance hormones is to consume high fiber foods. These fibers pick up excess cholesterol and hormones and escort them out of the body through the intestines. Aim for at least 28 - 35 grams of fiber a day. Fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of fiber per serving include artichokes (~10g), raspberries (~8g/cup), avocado (~10g/cup), and chia seeds (~10g/oz). Don’t worry if none of those foods sound good to you - all whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables contain beneficial fiber! The important thing is to vary your intake of plant foods to get the most benefit.
2) Exercise regularly
Exercise does increase cortisol levels in the short term but it also helps to reduce cortisol levels at night, which increases sleep quality. Exercise can be a great tool to maintain healthy cortisol levels but if you are experiencing high amounts of stress in your life then you may benefit more from a gentler exercise such as walking, yoga, or pilates versus high intensity or endurance training. An extended amount of endurance exercise (2+ hours) can cause more harm than good and can increase cortisol levels for several days. If you sense your cortisol levels are high, try to limit exercise to 1 hour. Since cortisol is released during physical exercise, it may be beneficial to exercise in the morning, when cortisol is already at its peak in order to synchronize with the body’s natural rhythm. Try to fit in time to exercise a few times a week with forms of exercise you enjoy.
3) 8 hours of quality sleep
Good quality sleep is necessary when it comes to hormone regulation and stress management. Sleep can become more difficult when your cortisol levels are high or you are thinking about all the items on tomorrow’s to-do list. Sleep and stress are like the chicken and the egg. When cortisol levels are high it can be hard to sleep and when you get little sleep, it can increase cortisol levels.
Some things you can do to increase your sleep quality and improve stress levels:
- Winding down before bed with activities like stretching, reading a book, taking a bath, writing in a journal. This seems like a great time to implement a gratitude practice that can shift your whole perspective to more optimism.
- Exercise regularly
- Get exposure to natural light throughout the day to help regulate melatonin levels, which regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Avoiding bright lights and technology before bed will also help to keep this cycle normalized.
- Limit caffeine intake to 2 cups of coffee per day, before 2pm. This will help reduce the amount of caffeine circulating in your bloodstream later in the day.
4) Meditation and mindfulnessMeditation and mindfulness activities can help to reduce cortisol levels and negative thoughts. Mindfulness does not look like one thing for everyone. This can be any activity that brings you to the present moment such as writing, painting, meditating, etc.
If you’re feeling lost on where to start, here are a few ideas:
- The Name Game: similar to eye spy, you simply look around you and name three things you can hear, then two things you can see, and finally one sensation that you feel. This can help increase your awareness and curb spiraling thoughts.
- The Sigh: Sighing can bring more relief than you think. A breathing exercise to bring a sense of calm is to take 2 consecutive breaths in through the nose and then 1 large sigh out the mouth. Make it quite audible. (Maybe don’t practice this in public).
- The Candle Exercise: Light a candle, take a seat and gaze at the flame for 5-10 minutes (from a safe distance to protect your brows). During this time you can let your mind wander and just observe your thoughts. Without holding judgment, let them pass like clouds floating in the sky.