Cortisol is a big buzz word in the wellness industry today. A natural hormone created by the body, it is most well-known for its role in the stress response, acting to suppress routine activities of the body and brain that are deemed nonessential during high-pressure situations. But an over-exposure to cortisol related to the stress-response system can have serious, negative side-effects on the body’s normal functions—and this is how the hormone got its bad rap.
However, cortisol is a necessary to human survival, and it’s important to understand the key difference between acute and prolonged stress, and how that can affect health and wellbeing.
Why do we biologically need cortisol?
Cortisol prepares the body to quickly react in moments of fear, and prepares you to either fight whatever is in your path, or flee. To do this, it boosts the body’s blood sugar levels, providing a person with access to the energy he or she needs to take on the threatening scenario. It also takes the body’s digestive and reproductive systems “offline” when in “fight or flight” mode.
Our ancestors experienced stress differently than we do today. Their stressors tended to be situations that required quick decision making and were intermittent in occurrence. Stress looks different in the modern world, but our bodies react the same way to lifestyle stressors that we experience daily (like running late, work stress, relationship and family turmoil, and so on) as they did to life threatening situations that faced our earliest ancestors. The biggest issue is that our lifestyle stress tends to be chronic and constant: it never shuts off.
Too much prolonged cortisol:
- Impairs cognitive function
- Dampens thyroid function
- Leads to blood sugar imbalances
- Decreases bone density
- Disrupts normal sleep patterns
- Decreases muscle mass
- Elevates blood pressure
- Lowers immune function
- Slows the healing of wounds
- Increases abdominal fat
- Leads to an overgrowth in yeast
- Could lead to diabetes
- Contributes to depression
But there are ways to reduce the effects of cortisol, and even use this normal bodily response to your advantage. Here are five cortisol hacking tips.
Refresh your mind.
I often ask my clients what they do in their down time. Responses I usually hear include: doing chores, watching TV and hanging out with friends. These types of activities are not necessarily bad, but not finding time to truly be still, relax and unwind can be detrimental to overall health. When the mind is running rampant, jumping from one thing to the next, your brain can interpret this as stress, causing cortisol to rise.
Recent studies show that meditation and mindfulness can directly impact your cortisol levels, reducing stress. Finding time for silence, or to simply be alone with your thoughts (aka meditation) is a practice. One that all of us should experiment with. Taking time to slow down and allow the mind to have a singular focus can help strengthen your neural pathways and calm your nervous system. Often, our modern day stressors are simply mental perceptions, not really true danger.
Consistent exercise patterns have both positive psychological and physical impacts on the body. Harvard Health noted that “Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.” Daily physical activity is known to fight stress by increasing the serotonin (or “feel good”) levels in your brain, while ridding toxins from your body.
But exercise that pushes you to maximum capacity, like running and cross-fit, actually raises cortisol levels. While every body has different physical needs, it’s important to evaluate the role exercise plays in your life. Does it calm you down? Or rev you up and cause you to stress?
Limit foods that will cause a blood sugar surge.
The body’s stress response is designed to use stored energy sources to overcome a stress-provoking occurrence. In order to access and make this energy available, cortisol calls on the liver to create and store sugar. This causes your blood sugar to surge, and also raises the stored sugar available in the liver. As this cycle continues from chronic stress it can cause insulin dysfunction, insulin resistance and, in some cases, diabetes. Consuming a food high in starches and simple sugars (think breads, pastas, and even most condiments and sweets) naturally creates a spike in blood sugar because of the lack of macronutrients (protein, fat, and fiber). When we include these “anti-nutrient” foods, especially when highly stressed, it sends a message to the GI tract, signaling for it to absorb more nutrients, thus cascading the snowball effect of weight gain.
Clean up your gut.
Ever experience digestive issues? That alone is enough to stress us out. Trouble with regulating bowel movements, indigestion, and IBS can all, in some way, be attributed to the food we eat and the lifestyle choices we’ve made. All of these digestive issues have a similar root cause—bad bacteria infecting the digestive tract. This bad bacteria feeds off of (not surprisingly) sugary, starchy foods, poor quality fats, fried foods, and more or less junk. These same foods can also cause tears in your gut lining, as well as indigestion (aka inflammation). The more you eat, the more you crave, and the saga continues: high sugary processed foods lead to a blood sugar spike, with elevates cortisol levels.
To fight this bad bacteria, we must strengthen the good gut flora—also known as probiotics. Probiotics allow food to move through the intestines with ease, while the body absorbs all the vitamins and minerals needed for cellular repair. Good gut bacteria thrives off of not only healthier foods (fiber rich fruits and veggies, protein and healthy fats) but it’s also important to feed your gut both probiotic-rich and prebiotic-rich foods. Probiotic-rich foods include fermented veggies (kimchi, sauerkraut) and kefir, while prebiotic foods are technically undigested carbohydrates that strengthen your good gut flora. Garlic, leeks, legumes and whole, sprouted grains are all prebiotic foods.
Get enough sleep.
We all know that sleep is an essential part of daily life. It’s a necessary part of daily routine as the time you spend sleeping allows the body to repair. During sleep, muscles and outstanding injuries have restful time to heal, the brain is in a state of calm and rejuvenation, heart rate lowers, inflammation calms, and the body rechargs to take on the next day.
The circadian rhythm of the body naturally aligns with the cycle of the sun. Cortisol levels are biologically programmed to decrease before going to bed, and increase upon waking to get you ready to tackle your day. However, there are many things we do in the modern day that can inhibit cortisol levels from falling in the evening. Screen time (watching TV, or using a computer or cell phone) in the evenings can send the wrong signal to the brain, and can have the opposite effect of winding down, increasing cortisol.
Lack of quality sleep directly impacts the brain’s ability to function. Without proper rest, the body go into “reserve” mode: maximizing the blood sugar glucose readily available as efficiently as possible, and turning off the body’s reaction to insulin. Thus, causing cortisol to rise.
Jamie Forward is a Holistic Health Coach based in the Jersey City/ NYC area. She works with clients to help educate them on functional nutrition, and behavioral/psychological hacks for a healthy, happy life. Jamie holds an educational background in Psychology, and is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is continuing her studies in Women’s Hormonal Health, and is also a classically trained dancer and dance fitness instructor in the Greater NYC area.