Ahh, Cortisol. Such a helpful hormone when it comes to situations of emergency. It is our main stress hormone, released by our adrenal glands. Cortisol serves many functions in our body. It is a regulator in our sleep/wake cycle, plays a large role in metabolism and determining how our ingested food is utilized, regulates blood sugar, and partakes in the formation of memories. Its careful regulation of these many processes allows it to control the body’s resources and divert energy into pathways that allow us to escape or fight during emergencies.
For example, cortisol directs the release of glucose (sugar) into our bloodstream. This provides a quick source of energy for our body to use when fleeing a dangerous situation. Cortisol gets a bad rep, but it’s really not a bad guy. The intentions of the hormone serve an important evolutionary purpose.
However, problems arise in the context of our perpetually stressful and fast-paced lives. Cortisol levels were evolutionarily intended to rise during times of stress and fall after the danger has subsided. In present day, many people experience consistently high cortisol levels. Their body is exposed to such a large array of stressors in modern living that it is tricked into believing we are under constant threat. Our stress mechanisms are exasperated, eventually leading to some fairly negative side effects such as:
- High blood pressure
- Mood changes
- Weight gain in face or abdomen region
- Decreased sex drive
- Fogginess/difficulty focusing or remembering things
- Poor immune system
- Increased risk of diabetes
As you can see, these are not awesome symptoms to experience! High cortisol levels can interfere with our daily lives and prevent us from being our happiest and healthiest selves. Although the only way you can confirm high cortisol levels is by having a hormone panel done by your doctor, there are many signs that you may be suffering from high cortisol. If you are constantly getting sick, experiencing trouble sleeping, gaining weight or struggling to lose weight around your midsection, or have noticed a negative change in your mood, you may have high cortisol levels.
So how can you reduce and prevent perpetually high cortisol levels? Read on to learn some easy ways to establish and maintain healthy levels of cortisol.
1. Alter Your Eating Habits
- Fighting sugar cravings can become quite the battle when your cortisol levels are high. Increased cortisol makes your body crave quick energy sources, aka sugar. It releases sugar into your bloodstream, triggering the hormone insulin to store this sugar and reduce blood sugar levels. This causes quick drops in blood sugar which induces more sugar cravings. Eating foods with high sugar content feeds this process of high cortisol spikes followed by dramatic blood sugar fluctuation. This leads to a host of negative symptoms such as fat storage, fatigue, feelings of hangriness (so hungry that you are angry), and trouble sleeping at night. The easiest way to combat this negative cycle is to reduce your intake of processed foods, high sugar foods, and even worse- fake sugars such as erythritol. This will allow your body to naturally stabilize your blood glucose levels, lowering your cortisol and allowing for the release of melatonin at night (the hormone that makes you tired and aids in sleep).
- Tip: Overall reduction of sugar intake is important. When craving a sweet treat, reach for some dark chocolate or a natural source of sugar such as berries. If you struggle with lowering your sugar intake, start by not consuming high amounts of sugar at breakfast. The worst thing you can do for your cortisol balance is starting your day with a spike in glucose levels from a carbohydrate/sugar-filled breakfast. Instead, focus on healthy fats and protein in the morning. Nutritionist Autumn Bates has a great post about what to add to a low carbohydrate breakfast smoothie! Check it out here.
- Focus on eating whole and healthy foods. Some foods that are scientifically proven to reduce your cortisol levels are dark chocolate, bananas, black or green tea, and fibrous foods. Incorporate more healthy fats into your diet such as nuts, olive oil, avocado. Fats are the building blocks of hormones and will help your body in establishing balanced hormones.
- Fish Oil
- One of the biggest mistakes people often make when trying to lose weight is severely restricting their caloric intake. This usually involves small meals that don’t produce the feeling of satiation. If you are not satiated, the hunger hormone ghrelin continues to be present in your body. Grhelin increases levels of circulating cortisol, so by living in a continuously hungry state you are spiking your cortisol levels. This combination of ghrelin and cortisol increases fat storage and slows your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight. The solution? Turn off your ghrelin hormone production. Eat until you feel full, fill your plate with healthy foods and enjoy eating them 🙂
2. Limit Caffeine
- Coffee addicts, I am talking to you. If I could have a mug of coffee in hand at all times of the day, I would. I genuinely love the taste of coffee (and am a wee bit addicted to caffeine). Unfortunately, caffeine increases levels of cortisol so it is important to limit daily caffeine intake to reduce and prevent high cortisol levels. Also worth noting is that all stimulants, such as caffeine, amplify feelings of anxiety and stress by further increasing our level of arousal past optimal territory. Caffeine in the late afternoon also disrupts normal sleep processes. To summarize, stick to just one cup of joe in the mornings. If you need an afternoon caffeine boost, try black or green tea! As already mentioned, these teas reduce cortisol levels. They also contain significantly less caffeine than coffee (something I discussed in my detox foods post).
- Exercise is an awesome way to combat stress. Mild to Moderate exercise reduces cortisol while releasing feel-good endorphins. Consider it a two for one special. If you are an avid exercise fanatic, be careful not to overdo your workouts. Two a day workouts, excessive cardio, and more than 3 HIIT workouts a week can catapult your body into a state of stress. This will increase your cortisol levels instead of decreasing them. Allow your body to rest. I touched on this topic of over-exercising in my last blog post, Get Fit: How To Schedule A Weekly Workout Routine. I encourage you to check it out for tips on how to schedule a healthy week of workouts.
4. Reduce Electronics Time
- The age of technology can be so convenient yet so harmful. Recent scientific studies have shown that every time you receive a notification, with positive or negative content, your cortisol levels spike. Additionally, the blue light emitted from the screens of computers, televisions, kindles, and phones suppresses melatonin production and thus prevents you from reaping the benefits of a good night’s sleep. We will talk about sleep next, but just know it is important for reducing cortisol levels. Overall, your phones are creating stress triggers in your daily life that increase your levels of cortisol. There are many solutions to this problem.
- Give yourself an hour of technology-free time before bed and also when you wake up in the morning. If this is difficult to do, start with 30 minutes. Take this time to read a book, take a walk, carry out your morning or night routine.
- Turn off notifications on as many apps as possible. Especially Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, group messages, etc. The only notifications I receive on my phone are texts, phone calls, and emails.
- Don’t be afraid to put your phone on do not disturb. Take some time to yourself. The world of technology isn’t going anywhere.
5. Quality Sleep
- Sleep is SO important. It is something I have often overlooked in my life. Not only is the amount of sleep you get important (which is a recommended 7 to 9 hours for adults ), the quality of sleep you experience is highly influential in your health. Deep sleep is where the magic happens as far as restorative action is concerned. Without quality sleep, you will experience increased cortisol and ghrelin (hunger hormone) levels. This leads to inflammation, bloating, fat storage, weakened immunity, etc. So how do you ensure a good night’s sleep? As we have discussed, turn off electronics an hour before bedtime. Unwind in some non-electronic way before bed. Don’t consume caffeine in the late afternoon. Also, adding healthy carbohydrates to your dinner (sweet potatoes, beans, squash) is a way to naturally increase melatonin levels at night. Prioritize sleep in your life and your body will thank you for it.
6. Reduce All Other Stressors
- This is the part where I tell you to meditate, journal, reflect on things you are grateful for in your life. Actively adjust your mindset when you are thinking negatively. For example, “I have to” can become “I get to” for any task or situation. Small changes to the way you appreciate your surroundings can make a big difference in your perception of living. Surround yourself with positive people who support you, love you without condition, and push you to be the best version of yourself. We can empathize with negative people while still distancing ourselves from their toxicity. You are not required to keep close friends that tear you down or carry clouds of negativity. Find the people that make you happiest in this life and spend as much time with them as you can 🙂
To summarize all of these facts and findings for you. Some easy ways to reduce high cortisol levels are:
- Eat less processed foods
- Reduce sugar intake, especially in the morning
- Eat more of these foods: dark chocolate, bananas, black or green tea, fibrous foods, healthy fats
- Try adding probiotics or fish oil supplements to your diet
- Eat until you feel full
- Minimize caffeine intake
- Perform Mild to Moderate exercise often, allow yourself rest days from high-intensity workouts
- Reduce time spent on electronics
- Make quality sleep a priority: less caffeine, more electronic free time, eat carbohydrates at dinner
- Adopt a positive mindset
- Surround yourself with uplifting people
I hope you found this post helpful, thank you for reading! I wish you all the best in your health journey. If you liked this post and want to see more like it, make sure you enter your name and email below to subscribe. Have an awesome and fulfilling rest of your week everyone!