Questions, how often do you feel stressed, honestly?
If you find yourself overly stressed, tired and experiencing weight gain without changes to your diet or exercise frequency you could be! Specifically, your cortisol might be too high.
Cortisol is often referred to as the primary ‘stress hormone’. It’s the main hormone released when we’re pressured or in ‘fight or flight’ survival mode. Although cortisol has gotten a bad rap for contributing to acne, weight gain and high blood pressure we need it to live! There’s actually a lot more to cortisol levels than just our stress response and its unwanted symptoms.
Cortisol helps keep us motivated, awake and responsive to our environment. However, abnormally high circulating cortisol levels can be dangerous and contribute to long-term problems. Corticosteroids and chronic stress are the two of the biggest contributors to high cortisol. High cortisol production can mean weight gain, anxiety, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances and fertility problems, in addition to many other problems.
The great news? There are any natural ways to get your cortisol under control. Adaptogen herbs are one simple way although only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lowering cortisol naturally.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally
Perhaps the most obvious and simplest of methods to lowering cortisol naturally is to change your diet, exercise routine, sleep and stress levels. Assuming you haven’t been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease you can apply these simple steps:
1. Switch to a Whole Foods, Anti-inflammatory Diet
Hypoglycemia and high levels of inflammation can contribute to high cortisol levels. Following a diet high in antioxidants, fiber and essential nutrients and therefore low in processed foods help to balance hormones, control cravings and get on the right track. This anti-inflammatory diet supports adrenal support which promotes maintenance of a healthy weight, increased energy and better sleep.
Some of the most significant dietary contributors to inflammation and high cortisol levels include:
high-sugar, high-glycemic diet (packaged foods, refined-grain products, sugary drinks and snacks)
- consuming high amounts of refined and trans fats
- drinking too much caffeine and alcohol
- experiencing insufficient intake of micronutrients and antioxidants
- not consuming enough fiber (which makes it hard to balance blood sugar)
- not consuming enough healthy fats or protein (which can lead to hunger, weight gain and high blood sugar)
Instead, switch to a low-glycemic diet. Include healthy fats and proteins with every meal. Get enough fiber and phytonutrients by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Include coconuts, olive oil, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish and grass-fed beef as well as probiotic foods including yogurt, kefir and cultured veggies as your best options.
2. Reduce and Manage Stress
In today’s society, most people are stressed to some degree. Chronic stress is linked to every single health problem because it sends chemical signals to every area of the body; the heart, blood vessels, immune system, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs, and brain. It has the power to increase breathing, heart rate, pain and muscle tension, increase susceptibility to overeating, and sleep-related problems. There is a solution luckily. The natural stress relievers listed below are proven to help lower cortisol and decrease the negative impact stress has on your health:
Meditation or “mindfulness”: Practicing ‘mindfulness’ trains the brain and body to turn off the stress response and promote more relaxation. Just 15-30 minutes per day can significantly reduce cortisol levels.
Acupuncture: This Traditional Chinese Medicine helps naturally control stress and reduce symptoms like muscle or joint pain, headaches, fertility problems, troubling sleeping, and poor circulation.
Deep breathing exercises: Diaphragmatic breathing is an easy technique to learn, although usually overlooked. It turns down the sympathetic nervous to turn up the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes relaxation. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing throughout the day can relieve muscle tension and anxiety. Check out Dr. Herbert Benson’s book on the subject: “The Relaxation Response.”
Spending time in nature/outdoors: Perhaps the easiest method thus far, being in nature is a well-documented way to promote relaxation. Go for walks, runs, or visit the forests or ocean. Garden at home or practice ‘earthing’: running or walking barefoot.
3. Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. Around 30 – 60 min daily can help balance hormones, improve sleep and aid normal metabolic functions (like balancing blood sugar levels). The key is to avoid overtraining and overexerting yourself, for this can increase cortisol. Exercise temporarily increases adrenaline and cortisol production, only to bring cortisol back down to normal levels afterward. This cycle gives your autonomic nervous system its own workout. This means the next time your stress hormones rise due to a perceived threat, your body is better able to lower cortisol levels because it’s been primed to this during physical activity.
4. Use Adaptogen Herbs and Superfoods
Adaptogen herbs help balance hormones by reducing inflammation due to their strong antioxidant, antiviral and antibacterial effects. They have natural antidepressant effects; lower fatigue; and help balance blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Reishi mushrooms and cocoa, have been safely used for thousands of years to promote better overall health with little to no side effects.
There are at least 16 different proven adaptogenic herbs that can help lower cortisol, including:
- licorice root
- holy basil
- medicinal mushrooms, including reishi and cordyceps
5. Try Essential Oils to Promote Relaxation
Essential oils are also helpful for fighting stress and balancing hormones. Lavender, myrrh, frankincense, and bergamot, contain potent, active ingredients that can naturally lower cortisol, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and help with sleep and digestive functions. There are many ways to use essential oils. You can inhale them, diffuse them in your home, make bath soaps or body washes or rub them directly into your skin when mixed properly with a carrier oil (like coconut or jojoba oil).
6. Get Enough Sleep
High cortisol can make it hard to sleep efficiently. People with normal circadian rhythms experience a spike in cortisol levels during the early morning hours and then a drop at night prior to sleep and during sleep. People with high cortisol levels can experience the opposite; feeling wired at night, and fatigued during the day. They can’t sleep well at the times they’re supposed to.
Overactivity of the adrenal glands is a telling sign of either Cushing’s disease or adrenal fatigue. This is generally caused by a hormonal imbalance, but by taking the steps above you should see improvements. Ideally, you should be aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep per night
What Is Cortisol?
The adrenal gland secretes cortisol under the direct order of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Cortisol is a type of essential glucocorticoid steroid hormone, where levels are highest around 7 a.m. and lowest at night. Cortisol is also present in both chronically stressed individuals and those who are perfectly healthy because it’s a vital hormone responsible for different purposes within the body. It’s responsible for numerous chemical interactions every single day.
Cortisol serves different essential functions, including:
- helping to keep us awake and alert
- preventing fatigue or brain fog
- keeping our metabolisms running (it helps us burn fat for energy)
- balancing blood sugar levels (since it allows cells to take up and use glucose for energy)
- reducing inflammation and helping with healing
- balancing fluid levels based on salt and water intake
- contributing to control blood pressure
- helping with many cognitive processes like learning and memory formulation
- allowing us to respond to and escape perceived dangers
- helping to develop the fetus during pregnancy
Cortisol levels rise in the presence of another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH signals the adrenals to pump out more cortisol, which can be the result of various forms of physical or emotional stress, a poor lifestyle, too little sleep, or illnesses and infections.
What’s the Difference between High Cortisol Levels vs. Cushing’s Disease vs. Cushing’s Syndrome?
If you have Cushing’s disease it’s more than likely you were diagnosed because your pituitary or adrenal glands were producing abnormally high levels of cortisol for a duration of time. You may have experienced symptoms including rapid weight gain, a swollen face, fatigue, and water retention/swelling around the abdomen and upper back, which usually is caused by tumors on the adrenal or pituitary glands. It affects women between 25 – 40 most often although anyone can develop the condition.
Increased cortisol production due to stress is more common than a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease. Rates of Cushing’s disease are comparatively low compared to other hormonal/endocrine conditions like thyroid disorders or diabetes for example. It’s estimated that Cushing’s disease impacts between 10 to 15 people per million. High cortisol levels conversely affect millions of people and most adults. Whilst the symptoms are similar those caused by Cushing’s disease are usually are more severe in nature.
Cushing’s syndrome, moving on is not the same as Cushing’s disease. They’re similar but different. Cushing’s syndrome is “the general state characterized by excessive levels of cortisol in the blood,” which is less serious.
Low Cortisol Levels: Addison’s Disease and Adrenal Fatigue
Addison’s disease is the opposite of having Cushing’s disease — experiencing abnormally low cortisol levels, adrenal insufficiency or adrenal fatigue. Addison’s disease is considered a type of autoimmune disease because the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissue. It is also rare. Tissues within the adrenal glands themselves become damaged and inflamed, This alters hormone production within the adrenals. Addison’s disease symptoms are opposite to high cortisol level conditions, causing fatigue, weight loss, muscle wasting, mood swings and changes to the skin.
Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels
The long-term danger of having high cortisol levels is that it continual activation of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. This can temporarily affect normal reproductive, digestive and immune functions. These systems are shut down because they’re not essential for immediate survival. What’s worse, it becomes a deadly cycle. Sensory nerve cells perceive a threat, which then triggers the hypothalamus to signal the pituitary and adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. Prolonged cycles can make someone susceptible to all sorts of illnesses, infections and hormonal problems.
Some clues that may signal you’re living with high cortisol levels include:
- weight gain, especially around the abdomen/stomach (this can happen despite not changing your diet or exercise routine)
- a puffy, flushed face
- mood swings and increased anxiety
- fatigue (including feeling “tired but wired”)
- trouble sleeping normally
- irregular periods and fertility problems (chronic stress drives pregnenolone/progesterone into conversion to cortisol, which competes for
- precursors available for synthesizing of other important hormones, like DHEA, estrogen, and estradiol. This is known as “The Progesterone/Pregnenolone Steal Effect”) (13)
- high blood pressure levels (cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate)
- acne or other changes in the skin
- higher rates for bone fractures and osteoporosis (cortisol can lower hormones like estrogen, which are important for bone health)
- muscle aches and pains
- changes in libido due to changes in estrogen or decreased testosterone
- excessive thirst
- increased urination
- higher susceptibility to infections (the stress response can lower immune system functions)
What’s Causing Your High Cortisol Levels
Cortisol elevates when your stress goes up. Anxiety, worry, anger, frustration are all negative mindsets that contribute to high cortisol levels. Anything that alters your hormonal balance and negatively affects the immune system like medication use, inflammation, poor sleep and a poor diet will trigger high cortisol level. Major factors contributing to higher than usual cortisol production can include:
- corticosteroid medications
- over-exercising or overtraining
- nutrient deficiencies
- addiction (alcohol or drug abuse)
- higher than normal estrogen levels
- malnourishment and eating disorders
- severe kidney or liver disease
- pregnancy or birth control pills
- recent surgery, illness, injury or whole-body infections (which all trigger inflammation)
High Cortisol Testing and Diagnoses
Your doctor can facilitate tests to see if you have abnormally high cortisol levels. A 24-hour urine test is used more often than a cortisol blood test to diagnose Cushing’s disease or syndrome. Cortisol levels above the below normal ranges are considered high:
Normal cortisol ranges for adults and children in the morning are between five to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 138 to 635 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L)
Normal cortisol ranges for adults and children in the afternoon are between three to 16 mcg/dL or 83 to 441 nmol/L
Normal cortisol for a newborn baby is between two to 11 mcg/dL or 55 to 304 nmol/L
NOTE: Values differ depending on the time of day, age and the type of cortisol test performed.
If your test results show the risk of Cushing’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome, you’ll be treated on what’s elevating your cortisol levels. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you suspect you might have Cushing’s disease or syndrome to assess whether or not you need to discontinue or lower use of medications that increase cortisol (such as steroids), undergo life-saving surgery to remove the tumor or use radiation and/or medications to shrink the tumor.
Final Thoughts on Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is necessary to live. Cortisol isn’t the problem. The problem is medications, a lack of exercise, processed foods and high-stress levels. Consult your doctor always but regardless we can all lower our cortisol naturally. Practice mindfulness and exercise and consume a diet rich in fresh vegetables, clean protein, and fruit.