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Cortisol 101 + 8 Tips to Lowering Cortisol Naturally
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone but it is also a life sustaining adrenal hormone essential to the maintenance of homeostasis. It’s released during the body’s “fight or flight” response to a physical danger.
Cortisol prepares the body for physical danger by releasing glucose into the bloodstream, improving the brain’s use of glucose, and increasing the availability of tissue repairing substances. Cortisol also curbs bodily functions that are not essential in emergency situations, such as the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems.
Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to your normal levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
You probably don’t face physical threats daily but most likely do face multiple demands each day that causes you stress. These could include a huge workload or work problems, financial concerns, or just taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats and your body reacts the same as it would a physical threat.
Prolonged high cortisol because you’re stressed-out all the time, can be detrimental to almost all of the body’s processes. Serious consequences such as heart disease, obesity, depression, and interference memory and learning can happen.
There are many natural ways to lowering cortisol levels. Here are my top 8.
8 Tips to Lowering Cortisol Naturally (Plus Bonus)
1. Identify Your Stress Triggers
The first step in naturally reducing cortisol is to identify the stressors in your life that are triggering the release of cortisol – and when you know, you can eliminate them. Among some common triggers are lack of proper nutrition (eating too much fast food, sugary carbohydrates, bad fats etc), inadequate restorative sleep, over exercising (gym rats take note), and constant “bad” dieting.
2. Consume Protein at Each Meal
I say this all the time and for many reasons, this being a big one! The longer you go without food the more your glycogen reserves get depleted, and protein is a builder of these reserves. Incorporate protein into each meal. Eat breakfast that contains protein because your brain is particularly depleted of its glycogen reserves after sleeping. Did you know inadequate protein intake during the day can disturb sleep, which may spike your cortisol? Be sure to start the day with a protein packed meal. I love a good protein smoothie, balanced to give me 15 grams of protein with low-glycemic natural sugars, 8 grams of fiber and a healthy dose of good carbs – it starts my day out just right!
3. Eat Healthy and Nutritiously
You’ve here it over and over again: Avoid Sugar and Refined (processed) Carbohydrates. Among the many reasons it that those can cause spikes in insulin production and evoke a stress-like response. Eat balanced meals consisting of protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats. When you have a diet rich in complex carbohydrate, it helps keep cortisol levels lower than low carb diets. Don’t buy into fad diets and don’t let food and eating become a source of stress. Read my Mindful & Stress-less Eating Tips.
4. Eat Often (You know I mean 4-5 times a day right?)
After 5 hours without food your body starts to be stressed due to lack of nutrients that is starts to elevate cortisol levels. Aim to eat 5 or 6 times daily. Do not diet or overly restrict calories or certain foods. Researchers at Yale University and the University of British Columbia found that women with high levels of “cognitive dietary restraint” (putting a lot of mental energy into restricting certain foods) had significantly higher cortisol levels, bigger appetites, increased consumption of sweets, more negative moods, and higher body-fat levels – even despite getting more exercise (whoa, did you read that!).
5. Drink the H2O
Dehydration can induce a stress response and spike cortisol levels. And if we are stressed, we can become dehydrated. Drink water first thing in the morning, we become dehydrated during sleep. Try not to drink water an hour before bedtime in order to prevent waking up to go to the bathroom which interrupts sleep (talking about this below).
6. Exercise Moderately
As with everything, moderations is key. Exercise does help to build muscle mass and increase the brain’s output of the ‘happy hormones” serotonin and dopamine – brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. Minimize the urge to become a ‘gym rat’ or have prolonged physical activity. After an hour of exercise your body’s testosterone levels being to decline and cortisol begins to rise. Keep workouts to under an hour and do not train more than 2 days in a row.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the time you are working out. Late evening workouts can raise your cortisol and that isn’t helpful (unless you work the night shift). Working out during your slump times, like morning or early afternoon, can give you the boost you need for the rest of the day (instead of those cups of coffee).
7. Watch Your Stimulants Intake
Watch your consumption of caffeine-containing coffee, tea, energy drinks, appetite suppressants, or medications such as Excedrin and Midol. Science shows caffeine can stop the lowering of cortisol levels and in some cases, even raise the levels. If you are sensitive to caffeine, it could also have a stress response on your system. Avoid high intake of herbal stimulants too…. those aren’t any better.
8. Get Better Sleep
Cortisol and melatonin work together. When cortisol drops, melatonin rises and makes you sleepy. While you sleep, the lower levels of cortisol allow your cells to repair and heal. If your levels stay elevated because your aren’t getting good or enough sleep, that repair can’t occur. Ensure a regular sleep pattern: be in bed before 10:30pm and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid exposure to light for a two hour period before bedtime, particularly blue light emitted by electronics such as TVs, laptops, iPads, and blackberries. If evening electronics are necessary, use a blue light filter on the screen. Natural sleep aids, like chamomile tea and melatonin, are ok. Melatonin can help you sleep deeper and lengthen the sleep cycle. We like USANA Pure Rest.
Tip: If you wake up feeling tired & fatigued, that’s a sign you’re not getting enough good sleep.
Bonus Mindset Tip: Become Friends with Stress
All the above are great things to do to impact cortisol levels, mostly physical related, but there is another really impact and that is your mindset on stress. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, writes about this in her book The Upside of Stress to make friends with your stress. In the book she discusses that it is all about your mindset on stress and how think about it. Do you make stress something negative with thoughts like “Life isn’t supposed to be stressful”. If you do, shift your thinking to a more positive direction. For instance, instead of saying “I’m failing” shift and say “I care”. One mindset is about failure while the other is more encouraging. McGonigal says to not isolate stress but realize that stress is a part of being human with countless others who know what stress feels like – this way you begin to understand you’re not alone.
Need some more help with stress and cortisol?
Start by minimizing sugar and blood sugar spikes that stresses your body. My Sugar Buster Program is designed to help you get off the sugar roller coaster and understand the crazy carbohydrate cravings. You’ll get access to an online program coupled with live support so you kick the sugar, learn and develop skills for a healthy lifestyle. =
Once you have released the sugar and carbohydrate hold, The Love Your Body Challenge will help you keep going and show you what, why and how to eat for weight loss or management, better digestion, deeper sleep, and teach you to make healthful lifestyle choices. This gives you a much less stressed out body and life.
Questions? Contact me anytime.
Helping you be your healthiest and happiest self!