The term cortisol has been in the news a lot lately. If you are like most people, you have heard the word, but don’t know exactly what it means, how it affects your health or how to lower it. Below are some common symptoms of high cortisol along with some natural ways to lower your cortisol levels.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone and is responsible for a number of functions in the body. When you are under extreme or chronic stress, your adrenal glands increase the production of cortisol and release it in your body. Cortisol aids in:
- Regulating your sleep and wake cycles
- Managing how your body uses proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
- Reducing systemic inflammation
- Controlling your blood pressure
There are three different glands that impact how much cortisol is released into your body – the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (often referred to as the HPA axis). These glands work together to determine how much cortisol needs to be produced. In addition to stress, cortisol levels can become elevated due to certain medications or a tumor on the adrenal glands.
Symptoms of High Cortisol
When your cortisol levels are imbalanced for an extended period of time, your immune system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and your digestive system become compromised, resulting in a plethora of health issues. Some common symptoms of high cortisol include-
- Rapid Weight Gain – You may experience rapid weight gain in the face, abdomen, and chest. This weight gain is contrasted with slender legs and arms.
- Flushed Face – Cortisol can cause your face to become flushed and round. You can help decrease facial flushing by limiting or avoiding caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, or soda.
- Belly Fat – Cortisol affects how your body stores fat and contributes to weight gain. Typically, individuals who have elevated cortisol levels will hold fat in their abdominal region, causing the spare tire look. This increased fat in the abdominal region increases the risk of disease. Elevated cortisol can also cause you to crave unhealthy foods that are high in sugar, fat, and calories. Additionally, you may tend to overeat when your cortisol levels are high.
- Cardiovascular Disease – When you are under stress, your adrenal glands activate your fight or flight response by increasing cortisol levels and preparing your body for action. When your fight or flight response activates, your heart rate will increase, your blood pressure will spike, and your respiration will increase. Increased cortisol levels can raise your blood pressure, resulting in high blood pressure readings. All of these can take their toll on your heart and increase the risk of heart damage, heart attack, stroke, and heart disease when you are under chronic, long term stress.
- Decreased Sex Drive – Elevated stress hormones can cause a man’s testosterone levels to decline. Furthermore, it can prevent a man’s testicles from reacting properly to testosterone. In women, high cortisol levels can cause hormone imbalances, which can cause low libido, irregular menstrual cycles, mood swings, hot flashes, and much more.
- Digestive Disorders – Increased cortisol levels can cause a number of digestive woes, including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, abdominal bloating, stomach pain, and gas.
- Insomnia – Cortisol is at its highest in the morning and declines throughout the day. When you are under chronic stress, your cortisol levels may remain high throughout the evening and night, causing insomnia.
- Decreased Immunity – When your cortisol levels are high, your body is no longer able to regulate the immune system. When this occurs, systemic inflammation occurs and the body’s ability to fight off illness and disease declines.
- Skin Changes – When your cortisol levels increase, you may experience changes in your skin. Many individuals with high cortisol levels may bruise easier and may notice purple stretch marks.
- Bone and Muscle Health – Muscle weakness is common and extended periods of elevated cortisol can lead to osteoporosis or bone loss.
- Urinary Health – You may experience increased thirst and frequent urination.
- Psychiatric Issues – Increased cortisol levels have been associated with several psychiatric issues such as mood swings, anxiety, depression, and irritability.
- Elevated Glucose Levels – When your cortisol levels are too high, it can prevent your body from converting glucose into energy. This can increase your blood sugar levels, which can lead to type 2 diabetes and a host of medical issues associated with high glucose levels.
Natural Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels
There are several things that you can do to lower your stress levels, reduce the effects of stress on the body, and improve your overall health and well-being. Here are some common ways to help rebalance your cortisol and promote good health.
- Eat a Nutritious Diet – Nutrition is critical to your health and can affect how much cortisol is produced by the body. Eating a diet filled with nutritious vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and low glycemic foods like eggs can help nourish your body. Add foods like fish, beans, fruits, sunflower seeds, and whole grains that rich in folic acid and vitamin B5 to help balance cortisol levels. Avoid processed foods, sugar, and white flour as these can increase inflammation throughout the body and cause hormone dysregulation. A certified nutritionist will work with you to develop customized meal plans tailored to your specific needs.
- Stay Hydrated – Staying hydrated is essential to good health. It helps ensure that all systems in your body are functioning properly, it aids in detoxification, and it helps improve your weight loss efforts. For best results, we recommend drinking one half of an ounce of fluids (preferably water) for every pound you weigh to avoid dehydration. If you live in a hot climate, exercise more than 30 minutes a day, or have been under the weather, your fluid consumption should be increased.
- Regular Exercise – Regular exercise helps you lower your cortisol levels lose weight. When you exercise, your body produces “feel good hormones”, called endorphins. As these hormones are released, they combat the effects of stress and anxiety on the body. As your stress and anxiety levels decrease, your adrenal glands slow down the production of cortisol. In addition to regulating cortisol levels, regular exercise increases metabolism and can help with weight loss.
- Sleep – When you sleep, how much sleep you get, and the quality of your sleep all impact your cortisol levels. We recommend keeping a consistent sleep schedule, creating an environment for uninterrupted sleep (lowering your bedroom temperature a couple of degrees, using room darkening blinds or curtains, and using a white noise machine), turning off electronics an hour before bedtime, and avoiding caffeine in the evening can help you get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, which will help decrease your cortisol.
- Reduce Caffeine – Many individuals think they need coffee and other caffeinated beverages throughout the day to keep them going. When your cortisol levels are high, it can cause insomnia and fatigue, causing you to feel the need to consume large amounts of caffeine. Unfortunately, studies have shown that caffeine stimulates the production of cortisol, which further exacerbates your fatigue and insomnia. Try replacing your caffeinated beverages with healthier alternatives like water or shakes.
- Stress Relief – There are numerous stress relief techniques that can help naturally lower stress and reduce the effects of stress on the body. Some of the best stress relief techniques, include yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, prayer, and journaling. As your stress levels lower and your cortisol levels begin to decline, you will be able to get a full night of relaxing and refreshing sleep.
- Nutritional Supplements – There are two supplements we recommend to help lower cortisol levels – fish oils and ashwagandha. Fish oil provides your body with omega 3 fatty acids which can lower the effects of stress on cortisol levels. Ashwagandha is an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine to help you adapt to stress and relieve anxiety. When these two substances are taken together, your stress levels can decrease leading to improved cortisol levels.
Holistic Approach to Lower Cortisol
Our team of functional medicine specialists have the knowledge and experience to help you lower your cortisol naturally while rebalancing your adrenal hormones. Our comprehensive treatment plan includes guidance for eating a healthy diet and some lifestyle modifications to lower your stress levels. These will help to help restore your health and for sustainable weight loss.