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Stressed out? 5 Steps to Fix Cortisol Imbalance

When in balance, cortisol is actually essential for optimal health

These days, cortisol is receiving a lot of attention in both popular media and in scientific circles. Our recent fascination with cortisol may be due to the fact that it forms a direct link between an individual’s emotional well-being and his or her physical health. And all of those stats that people constantly reference, about how stress kills, and is linked to 90% of diseases, etc? That is largely cortisol at play. If you have heard of cortisol, you probably know of it as ‘the stress hormone’.

Cortisol Does Not Wholly Deserve its Bad Rap

And, yes, cortisol plays a major role in our stress response. But I’m going to rush to cortisol’s defence, and argue that cortisol does not wholly deserve its bad rap. In fact, we couldn’t do without it.

When in balance, cortisol is actually essential for optimal health. Cortisol is the hormone that jumpstarts us in the morning. It reduces inflammation. It aids in the metabolism of glucose, fats, and proteins. It provides the kick in the pants when we are confronted with a life-threatening situation…like a pit of snakes, or a mugger, or a speeding car that is about to flatten us. When functioning optimally, cortisol will fluctuate to keep you alert and energized throughout the day, and then will stave off to give you a deep and restful sleep at night, letting your body do its work of restoring and recovering.

A common cortisol misconception is that cortisol is stress, or creates stress, but the truth is much more complex. It is true that when our bodies are stressed, our adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream—but cortisol is released as a response to stress. Cortisol is just doing what it’s told: fighting for your survival in the face of danger (i.e. stress).

Our Cortisol Production is Exceeding Our Demands For Energy

What makes cortisol so tricky and undesirable today is that we are constantly facing danger. Well, not really…but our body doesn’t know the difference between the stress that we feel when our car breaks down in the middle of rush hour on a Friday, and the stress that we feel when we’re running out of a building that’s on fire. From our body’s perspective, the building is always on fire. And because it is so easy to be sedentary in this modern day and age, our cortisol production is exceeding our demands for energy; our cortisol has nowhere to go, so it just sits in our bodies and in our brain, making us anxious and miserable.

And because the building in your head is always on fire, your adrenal glands are constantly pumping out cortisol. As consequence of this massive influx of cortisol, a cascade of negative effects can occur: muscle breakdown, loss of bone density, the inhibition of collagen (what keeps your skin smooth and wrinkle-free), short-term memory loss, insomnia/poor sleep quality, weight gain due to an increased desire for sugary, calorie-dense foods—never mind the toll that will be taken on your mood and general sense of well-being.

Can You Tell If You Suffer From Too Much Cortisol, or Not Enough

Sadly, most of us are afflicted with some kind of long-term cortisol imbalance. But how can you tell if you suffer from too much cortisol, or not enough—or both? And what can you do to correct your cortisol imbalance? Below, I have listed a few questions you can ask yourself to determine if your cortisol is in excess of your body’s requirements for optimal health.

Over a span of a month or more, do you often:

  1. Have difficulties getting to sleep? And/or have trouble staying asleep?
  2. Feel tense, nervous, and anxious?
  3. Feel angry, cranky, irritable, and oversensitive?
  4. Breathe shallowly, or hyperventilate?
  5. Feel overwhelmed or incapable of handling daily life?
  6. Suffer from frequent headaches?
  7. Suffer from excessive perspiration and/or hot flashes?
  8. Have high blood pressure (over 130/90)?
  9. Frequently crave sugary, high-carb foods?
  10. Suffer from digestive issues, like an upset stomach or acid reflux?
  11. Have difficulty concentrating and poor short-term memory recall?

If you suspect that you might be suffering from high cortisol, you can ask your healthcare practitioner to test your levels–but be warned, if you are nervous about needles, a blood test may send your cortisol levels through the roof, thus skewing the results. A follicle test is also an option, in which they will test your hair to measure how much cortisol you’ve been releasing within the past couple months. Testing saliva, however, is probably the most widely-accepted method for testing cortisol levels, though you will almost certainly need multiple tests to get a more accurate picture of your adrenal function.

What about when your cortisol is too low? Interestingly, too-low levels of cortisol often result from too much cortisol–think of it as cortisol burnout. Your adrenal glands have thrown up their hands in despair: they literally can no longer produce the cortisol that your body is demanding, so now your stores are entirely depleted.

Some symptoms of too-low cortisol might be:

  1. Pervasive fatigue and apathy
  2. Depression that does not respond to serotonin-preserving medications
  3. Dizziness, especially when standing
  4. Unexplained weight loss
  5. Hyposomnia (excessive sleeping)
  6. Inability to wake up in the morning–usually need coffee or stimulants to get going
  7. General pain or aches, especially in the morning
  8. Need for naps throughout the day
  9. Low blood pressure (under 110/80)
  10. Heart palpitations
  11. Dark circles around eyes

So, what can be done to normalize your cortisol levels? Excessively-high and excessively-low cortisol levels can be addressed using similar methods if their cause is the same: adrenal dysregulation, resulting from too much stress. Below, I have listed some helpful tips for balancing out your cortisol levels and getting your adrenal function back on track.

  1. Engage in some moderate-intensity exercise. The key word here is moderate; studies have found that engaging in long-term, high-intensity cardio can actually produce more cortisol than the body can effectively clear away. How do you know if you are exercising too intensely? If you are experiencing some of the symptoms of excessive cortisol, as listed above, you might consider dialing back on your workout regimen; you can also check out Infofit’s article on over training and burnout here.
  2. Stick with just one cup of coffee–or switch to tea. Studies have found that cortisol levels are on average 30% higher in people after drinking coffee. Interestingly, participants in one study were shown to have lower levels of cortisol, and reported lower levels of stress, after drinking black tea.
  3. Practice good sleep hygiene; shut down your devices at least an hour before going to bed, limit time spent in your bed during the day, and try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day!
  4. Practice stress-management techniques; besides exercise, meditation and breathing techniques have been shown to be incredibly effective in lowering cortisol. Even reading a good book (or a boring book…) can provide relief for your overworked adrenals.
  5. Be smart with your supplements! Rhodiola, schizandra, red ginseng, and ashwagandha are just some of the safe and effective adaptogens that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels and improve mood. Do some of your own research, or talk to a naturopathic doctor, to find out which ones would work best for you!

So, if you’ve been experiencing feelings of restlessness, nervousness, irritability, or fatigue, excessive cortisol is almost certainly to blame; I hope these recommendations help you to achieve balance so that you can get back to feeling your best, and living your life with energy and confidence! Remember. Your health comes first!

Studies cited:

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Miller, G. E. (2007). Psychological Stress and Disease. Jama, 298(14), 1685. doi:10.1001/jama.298.14.1685

Ding, J. (1988). High Serum Cortisol Levels in Exercise-Associated Amenorrhea. Annals of Internal Medicine, 108(4), 530. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-108-4-530

Panossian, A. G. (2003). Adaptogens: Tonic Herbs for Fatigue and Stress. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 9(6), 327-331. doi:10.1089/107628003322658610

Singh, N., Nath, R., Lata, A., Singh, S. P., Kohli, R. P., & Bhargava, K. P. (1982). Withania Somnifera (Ashwagandha), a Rejuvenating Herbal Drug Which Enhances Survival During Stress (an Adaptogen). International Journal of Crude Drug Research, 20(1), 29-35. doi:10.3109/13880208209083282

Steptoe, A., Gibson, E. L., Vounonvirta, R., Williams, E. D., Hamer, M., Rycroft, J. A., . . .

Wardle, J. (2006). The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology, 190(1), 81-89. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0573