In continuing my series on hormones, we are going to tackle the hormone Cortisol in this article. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenal glands. The pituitary is the master gland in the brain that controls the activity of most other hormone-secreting glands and tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol when the body goes into stress. It is your built-in alarm system.
When you experience a threat, stress, when your blood sugar crashes, when a child runs into the street in front of your car and you slam on the brakes, you are experiencing the action of cortisol.
Cortisol is part of our fight or flight mechanism. The alarm goes off, cortisol is released and your body responds by releasing glucose (blood sugar) from your liver to give you fuel so you can run for the hills! Your heart may start racing and your blood pressure goes up. As soon as the danger is over, your body calms down, your blood pressure goes down to normal, insulin clears out the excess blood sugar and your heart rate goes back to normal.
However, in our stress-filled lives, our bodies feel like there are never-ending emergencies going on. It’s like your home alarm system going off and you can’t find turn off the bell.
This is when the sabotage begins. These are the symptoms that occur: you start putting on fat weight around your midsection, you may experience mood changes leading to depression and anxiety, you might experience hair loss, headaches, problems with digestion, inability to focus and concentrate leaving you foggy headed. It might be interfering with your sleep, leading you to feel tired, but wired and robbing you of precious sleep. Over time it can lead to heart disease, lower your immune system, increase blood pressure (not just temporarily) and decrease your bone density.
Stress matters. It’s not a trivial thing “oh it’s just stress” you may say, but it’s serious.
Many of the clients I have worked with have at times been mystified about why they can’t lose excess weight, especially the dreaded belly fat when they are exercising and eating well. But if you are staying up really late, feeling that “second wind” during your “me” time at midnight or after, it’s the equivalent of taking a baseball bat to bust the windshield of your very nice car. The message to your body is, “OK, I guess we are getting back to work instead of resting!”
But it’s not just the sleep disruption, it is the being pulled in five directions at the same time, multitasking, not taking time to eat, putting out fires all day. It is not sustainable and it will ruin your health.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are some other serious health conditions related to cortisol stemming either from pituitary tumors, like Cushing’s Disease or from the inability for the adrenals to make enough Cortisol, like Addison’s disease. These are very distinct and while a different root source of Cortisol imbalance, the stress-overload caused version is still serious and needs attention.
Here are some steps and strategies you can take to help bring your cortisol back to normal and to manage the stress response:
1. Get to sleep. Turn off your devices, try to be in bed by 10:00 pm, allow yourself to sleep for 7 to 8 hours if you can. Please refer to my earlier articles regarding habits, sleep environment, and hormones for more details, tips, and strategies, but high-quality sleep is crucial to calming cortisol!
2. Keep your blood sugar balanced. This means eating when your body is signaling hunger and having meals that include balanced portions of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that are right for you to maintain a steady state of fueled energy.
3. Meditate. it will remodel your brain and calm your system. There are so many methods of meditation, sitting, moving meditations, listening to guided meditations, engaging in a meditative activity like artwork, just find one that works for you. Start small, maybe just 5 minutes and build from there.
4. Just say no. Create good boundaries, figure out your most important priorities and say no to everything else. You are just one person and there are only so many hours in the day.
5. Take support supplements, if they are appropriate for you, that can help with supporting a calm state. Some suggestions include Varian Root Tincture, Lemon Balm, L-Theanine, adaptogenic herb blends with Rhodiola and Ashwagandha.
6. Create relaxation rituals. Maybe a warm Epsom salts bath to physically relax you. Brew a cup of herbal tea and take a time-out for 5 minutes outside so that you are experiencing a little bit of nature.
7. Spend time in nature. Go on a hike, take a walk in a beautiful place, but go outside and feel the sun on your face and just breathe for a little bit.
Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash
I'm Carmina McGee, MS, RDN, and my mission is to support women to live their happiest, healthiest lives and THRIVE!