Keeping Cortisol (our stress hormone) in Balance

It is raining outside and one of the first big storms of the winter. As a skier, winter rainstorms at home, mean snow in the mountains. I like to cross country ski. Most of my family members are downhill skiers. I often go off on my own into the woods to enjoy the quiet. Sometimes I get nervous that I will see a bear when I am out there by myself. I know the bears are hibernating all winter, but I am still scared one might be out looking for food on a clear day. If I did see a bear in the woods, my adrenal glands would release a whole bunch of cortisol, giving me the energy I need to ski faster than I might think possible to get away. My body would stop reproductive, digestive, and all sorts of other functions to put the focus on saving my life. That would be fine in the short term, and when I made it home, I would probably be extremely tired and want to sleep.

Our adrenal glands sit right above our kidneys. Their main job is to produce cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone. Cortisol is meant to protect us in short bursts. However, our adrenals can’t distinguish between the stress of staring at a bear in the woods or working on deadline with a difficult client or boss, coming into work with 150 emails waiting and the constant ding of more messages filling up our inbox, caring for older parents and your own teenagers, over-exercising, over-caffeinating, undersleeping, and trying to manage all the other pressures in modern life.

When we chronically live in a state of stress, we ask our adrenals to work overtime. Our body responds, but not without a cost. Our bodies like to work in equilibrium if we push one system we are likely to see a symptom crop of somewhere else.

Excess cortisol over a period of time can suppress the immune system, increase blood sugar, disrupt digestion, create inflammation, anxiety, and depression, and lead to food cravings and weight gain, especially in the midsection. As we age we make more cortisol and our cells are less able to absorb it so we can feel tired and wired at the same time, making sleep more difficult. When our body is focusing so much effort on making cortisol, it does not have the ability to make other hormones, which can result in lower sex hormones, increase the risk for osteoporosis, infertility, and cognitive decline.

When we continue to push our bodies to make cortisol for a long period of time, we can push so hard that we cannot make enough cortisol and end up with low cortisol. With low cortisol levels, we can expect to lie awake between 1-4 am, feel burned-out, or have low blood pressure, unstable blood sugar, salt cravings, and digestive issues.

Cortisol has a natural rhythm our bodies. It is higher in the morning so that we can get out of bed and get our day started and then it slowly decreases over the course of the day so that we can wind down and sleep and night. If your cortisol level is in the sweet spot, you can expect to go 4-6 hours between meals without feeling shaky or irritable, you feel like when you face a stressful situation, it may be uncomfortable, but it is something you think you can handle, you fall asleep in about 20 minutes, and you don’t crave sugar or caffeine to get through the afternoon.

We can have different imbalances at different times of day. Several years ago when I took my first cortisol test, it showed that my cortisol was low in the morning and high in the evening. I had trouble getting up in the morning and falling asleep at night and symptoms of both high and low cortisol.

The best way to know what is happening is to do a cortisol awakening response test (CAR), a test that measures salivary cortisol several times run this test and create individualized interventions to help you optimize your cortisol balance.

One of the most effective things we can do to balance cortisol is to practice some activities that get us out of flight or fight mode. Things like meditation, yoga, laughter, exercise (not too intense for too long), walking in nature, HeartMath, massage, acupuncture, and having a gratitude practice can all help calm your cortisol response. Another thing to try is setting aside a few minutes and thinking about what you can avoid, change, or reframe in your life so that you feel different about it. Pick one to start with and give it a try for a few days. If it doesn’t resonate with you try another practice.

Rarely does just one intervention work on its own. Take a look at your diet to see if you are eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits. The added vitamins will help support your adrenals. Experiment with eating smaller more frequent meals to help stabilize cortisol levels. Dieting is in itself a very stressful activity. Make sure that you are eating enough calories, and that those calories are made up of healthy protein, fats, and complex carbohydrates at each meal to balance your blood sugar. Sometimes adding in some additional carbohydrates in the evening can aid with sleep, especially if you are following a low carbohydrate diet. Experiment with avoiding added sugar, caffeine, processed foods, and alcohol for a few weeks and pay attention to how you feel, sleep, and focus.

There are a lot of vitamins, nutrients, and herbs that help support the adrenal glands. Some of the basics that those of us who are feeling stressed are often low in include various B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, vitamin D, zinc, and omega 3 fish oil. Your health professional can help you pick the right adaptogenic herbs for you to support your adrenal glands if they are appropriate. Please note that many of the herbs that support the body during times of high stress can interact with medications and should not be taken without first checking for interactions from a qualified practitioner.

Stress is a part of everyone’s life. How we deal with that stress can make the difference between feeling great and developing chronic health issues that keep you from doing the things you love to do. If you suspect that stress may be playing a role in how you feel, schedule a complimentary exploratory appointment here with me to learn more about how we can work together on diet and lifestyle to help support your adrenal glands.