Are You Stressed?
Too much cortisol?
In today’s fast-paced culture, many of us are overworked, sleep deprived, and under pressure from too many obligations, and the alarm never stops. It’s this state of chronic agitation that triggers cortisol function to run amok, contributing to a host of problems: insomnia, excess belly fat, anxiety, and extreme fatigue, to name just a few.
Cortisol has a bad reputation. Commonly known as the “stress hormone,” it’s produced, in part, by the adrenal glands when we’re under pressure and perceive a threat. The pituitary gland determines how much hormone the adrenals should release to help us fight or flee.
The hormone isn’t produced solely in response to stress; chronic stress just puts it into overdrive. Normal levels are critical for maintaining steady energy throughout the day. And cortisol orchestrates the performance of other key hormones, like estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid.
Cortisol can also be called the “control system” for hormones. It’s the one getting your blood pressure up only when it needs to be up. It also raises your blood sugar only when you most need it and modulates your immune system.
Optimally performing cortisol follows a pattern called the “cortisol curve.” In a healthy curve, cortisol is high in the morning and tapers off through the day and evening — like a slow-release energy pill that wears off just in time for bed.
But when we’re chronically stressed, the body releases cortisol at all hours. The curve turns into a roller coaster, and excess cortisol causes us to develop a hair-trigger response to stress. This can lead to adrenal exhaustion.
High cortisol levels wreak havoc over time, deplete your happy brain chemicals like serotonin, rob your sleep, and make you store fat, especially in your belly. (your belly fat contains four times the cortisol receptors as fat elsewhere in the body).
High cortisol is also linked to depression and food addiction. Imbalances can lead to inflammation and thyroid issues.
High Early-Morning Cortisol Levels
A healthy curve begins with cortisol levels highest in the morning, but not hours before dawn. Cortisol levels are normally lowest around 3 a.m., then begin to rise, peaking around 8 a.m. If you routinely wake up hours before dawn in a state of anxiety, your cortisol is overachieving and spiking too early. This could be happening if:
- You rarely sleep through the night.
- Your mind is racing the moment you wake up.
- You’re edgy and confrontational in the mornings.
- Your energy crashes and burns sometime around midmorning.
High Cortisol Levels Throughout the Day
Cortisol spikes in response to stressors like work deadlines, environmental pollution, and inadequate sleep. Ongoing high levels of cortisol can be caused by too much coffee, a lack of carbs throughout the day, or an intensive focus on schedules. If cortisol levels stay elevated, you’re wired but your adrenals are getting tired. It feels like:
- You’re constantly behind schedule and racing to catch up.
- You’re exhausted and hyper at the same time.
- People comment on how fast you talk.
- You’re easily irritated and feel little enthusiasm for anything.
Evening Cortisol Levels
If you often find yourself in heated political arguments online at 9 p.m., or if you do heavy training at the gym in the evenings, it’s likely that your cortisol levels are skyrocketing at night — right when you want them to be coming down. Some common indications of high evening cortisol levels are:
- Falling asleep is nearly impossible and can take hours.
- You worry in the evenings or feel especially argumentative.
- You distract yourself by spending a lot of time online, watching TV, or working out at night — which can lead to self-defeating cycle of even higher evening cortisol.
How to Restore Cortisol Balance
1. Cycle Your Carbs
A low-carb diet can support weight loss, but it’s not ideal for those with disrupted cortisol. In a 2014 clinical trial, subjects with cortisol issues were able to “reset” their curves by eating low-carb breakfasts, moderate amounts of healthy carbs in the afternoon, and higher amounts of healthy carbs (think sweet potatoes, not pasta or bread) in the evening.
Endocrinologist Alan Christianson, NMD, author of The Adrenal Reset Diet, directed the trial. He now prescribes this carb-cycling protocol to his patients who are dealing with any type of cortisol disruption.
“Imagine a seesaw: Higher-carb meals drop the cortisol, and lower-carb meals allow the cortisol to stay higher,” Christianson explains. This is because carbs elevate blood sugar, so the pancreas makes more insulin to manage that increase. Insulin decreases cortisol output. As blood sugar goes up, cortisol gets pushed down.
Avoiding carbs altogether can cause cortisol to stay elevated when you want it to come down, Christianson adds.
“When you’re too low on carbs, you raise cortisol because the muscles are being pulled apart for that glucose,” Christianson says. “In turn, that elevates cortisol even more, and that can really be a problem in the evening.”
2. Supplement Your Nutrition
There’s no single supplement that can reset your cortisol pattern, but stocking up on three essential nutrients: omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins C and B5 (pantothenic acid).
In a 2010 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, healthy subjects who took 2,400 mg of fish oil daily for six weeks lowered morning cortisol levels and showed leaner body mass.
Because vitamin B5 appears to reduce the hypersecretion of cortisol, Gottfried recommends it as a “low-risk treatment” for those with chronic stress. (Go with a good B-complex to ensure you’re getting the full complement of these stress-relieving nutrients.) She also advises taking a modest amount of vitamin C (no more than 1,000 mg per day), which has been shown to lower cortisol in surgical patients.
3. Practice Relaxing
Your adrenal glands don’t care if stress is mental or physical. Their job is to protect you when you feel endangered, and they’ll pump out cortisol whenever you feel agitated and threatened — at least until they burn out. But when you learn to calm the mind and regain a sense of control, the sympathetic nervous system stays quiet.
It could be, doing yoga, walking through the woods, or taking five minutes at lunch to quietly listen to the sounds around you. Find a practice that’s easy to do and makes you feel connected and centered.
Relaxation practices are beneficial any time of day, regardless of your present cortisol pattern, but they are especially helpful in the evenings to promote better sleep.
Acupuncture/Reflexology/Massage are also extremely useful in calming the sympathetic nervous system and achieving relaxation.
4. Relieve Stress With Adaptogens
For thousands of years, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda have used adaptogenic herbs — ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, eleuthero, and others — to relieve stress.
Adaptogens can be a good way for some people to bring their cortisol back to a healthy pattern.
Adaptogens not only reduce stress levels, but also help restore cortisol levels to their natural curve. These herbs support the adrenal and pituitary systems, helping them operate more efficiently. With those systems functioning properly, cortisol is more likely to be released when it should be, instead of spiking up and down.
5. Get Some Sleep
Rest is key to restoring a healthy cortisol curve, so even when you still have a lot to get done, you’re not sleepy, or it’s your only time to really catch up on email, go to bed anyway.
What’s more, if you are eating healthy carbs with dinner, engaging in a little relaxation practice, and using adaptogens, you might find that falling into a deep, restorative sleep is suddenly much easier.