Want to lose weight, feel more energized and overall be healthier? Here’s your guide to optimizing your cortisol!
Cortisol: It’s probably one of the most (if not the most)important hormones in your body when it comes to your energy and your weight.
Let me explain…. Cortisol is a hormone made from cholesterol and released by the adrenal glands (two bean shaped organs on top of your kidneys). Cortisol has a regular cycle of starting higher in the morning and decreasing as the day goes on- then increasing overnight and the cycle continues. Cortisol is also released as part of the stress response- helping our bodies cope with both immediate and chronic stress. During times of immediate stress, cortisol causes more blood sugar to be released to help us (literally) flee danger (think lion chasing you)—however, much of the chronic stress we face doesn’t require running from a lion, yet the same response remains- increased cortisol release and elevated blood sugar amongst other things.
Cortisol is also largely involved in immune function, sleep/wake cycle, bone health, hormonal balance, and as previously mentioned- energy and metabolism. Long term high cortisol can contribute to a number of health issues, and can leave us feeling completely exhausted too.
Here’s a few things that chronically high cortisol levels can contribute to:
Disrupt sleep: High cortisol levels can negatively affect our sleep, and not getting enough sleep can also contribute to elevated cortisol levels too [study here]
Weight gain, particularly around your middle: Chronically high cortisol levels can contribute to elevated blood sugar and insulin levels, which can contribute to weight gain in the middle; it can also contribute to sweet cravings too.
Depression and anxiety: High levels of cortisol may suppress production of serotonin—the feel good, happy hormone. [study here]
– Hormonal imbalance: Ladies (and men)- high cortisol levels can negatively affect your hormone balance and production of sex hormones- which for men can contribute to erectile dysfunction and for women may contribute to later than usual/ less frequent ovulation
– Elevated blood pressure: Cortisol release can cause constriction of the blood vessels and increase in the heart rate.
Clearly elevated cortisol is something we should all try to fight, whether you’ve been diagnosed through lab work by your doctor with high cortisol or not, we can all practice healthy habits to help nourish our bodies and adrenal systems.
When it comes to nourishing the adrenals and balancing cortisol, there are three main pillars of action — food, movement and lifestyle. Within each of these pillars there are a few things you can do to help balance your cortisol. It may seem like a lot to do it all at once, and in fact it probably is. So if you can try to pick up even one activity from each of the pillars, that’s a great start.
- Magnesium rich foods: Magnesium is key for helping to bring down cortisol levels. Foods that contain magnesium include green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, collards), nuts and seeds.
- Vitamin C rich foods (including citrus!): Vitamin C rich foods may also help to lower cortisol levels- this includes strawberries, lemons, lime, oranges. Baby greens- those that are less than 14 days of age, like microgreens, are potentially also a better source of vitamin C than older plants. Any greens will do though as they’re all a source of vitamin C.
- Phosphatidylserine rich foods: This compound may help to counteract the negative effects of cortisol; these foods include barley and white beans. Barley and white beans are also a source of fiber and magnesium- both good for blood sugar control as well.
- Omega 3 fatty acids: These healthy fats help with many things- one of which is potentially lowering cortisol levels. Choose chia seeds, walnuts, and wild salmon.
- Holy basil: Holy basil is a source of adaptogen- that helps to nourish the adrenal glands, and helps take stress off of an already stressed system. Try brewing a cup of holy basil tea or add it fresh to your recipes.
- Zinc rich foods: Zinc may help to ease cortisol secretion into your body. Zinc is found in animal protein, beans, nuts and seeds, and organic dairy.
- Carbohydrates: Yes! Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are actually important in the process of maintaining healthy cortisol levels. So although they get a bad wrap in a lot of ways, carbohydrates can be helpful in promoting healthy blood cortisol. Of course, choose healthy carbs like sweet and regular potatoes, whole grains, and gluten free grains when you can. It seems the best time to consume carbs for healthy cortisol levels is after exercise and in the morning.
To put these foods into a regular day you might eat the following:
Breakfast: Oatmeal with chia seeds, walnuts and strawberries – this dish is loaded with magnesium, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin C- and of course carbohydrates too.
Lunch: Green salad- made with microgreens and kale, with 2 Tbsp white beans, organic grilled chicken or wild salmon, tomatoes, carrots, and vinaigrette. This lunch is a source of vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, phosphatidylserine, and if you use salmon- omega 3 as well.
Snack: Apple with almond butter. This snack is a source of blood-sugar healthy fiber, as well as healthy fats and antioxidants as well as vitamin C and some magnesium.
Dinner: Stir fry chicken and vegetables with holy basil on top. Add your favorite vegetables here- anything green and leafy, or cruciferous (cabbage, kale, radishes), along with carrots or squash and onion. Add in holy basil! This dish will be a source of adaptogen, zinc, antioxidants, vitamin C, and magnesium amongst other things!
Movement is another key component to maintaining overall health, happiness, and healthy cortisol levels too. But like anything else, it’s all about how much, how often and how intense.
When it comes to movement for healthy cortisol levels, we want to focus on varied intensity exercise- including both lower and higher intensities. Research suggests that moderate to high intensity exercise may increase cortisol levels whereas lower to moderate exercise may actually contribute to lowering cortisol . Truly it’s all a balance, so try to include both higher and lower intensity exercises, but when your body is sore and tired, listen to it and back off.
One of the key components to maintaining lower cortisol after exercise involves what you eat post workout- aim for something with healthy carbs and perhaps some vitamin C as well (like a smoothie- with strawberries, lemon, a handful of greens, and a scoop of plant based protein).
There is no question that exercise is also helpful for stress management, which is one of the key components of lowering cortisol levels as well. So get moving! But remember to try to keep it balanced.
This is perhaps (I think) one of the most important components and often the most difficult as well when it comes to helping ease higher cortisol levels. In this day and age we’re wound tighter than we need to be and most of us are more underslept than we should be; however, with a little attention we can do a lot of good for our bodies and our minds. Here’s a few lifestyle practices for you to ponder (and start to practice) that can help reduce cortisol levels and ease stress too.
- YOU time! Whether it be 10 minutes or 60, any amount of time that’s yours, can help you de-stress
- We’re so connected, and being connected all the time can make us stressed- which isn’t good for burn out, nor cortisol levels. Pick a time of day or a day of week to disconnect.
- Meditation and breathing practice. Meditation and breathing practices (of any kind) can help to reduce cortisol levels that can help to reduce cortisol [study here]. Since any type of meditation is helpful- pick a style that you like and/or try any of the various apps out there, and give it a try!
- Social connection. Research suggests that loneliness can elevate cortisol levels- so connecting with others (friends, family, coworkers) can help us to have healthier cortisol levels, which is key for preventing depression amongst other things. [study here]. Even if you’re not someone who’s super social, trying to engage a little more can help.
- Regulating sleep is also a key role that cortisol plays. When we wake up in the morning our cortisol is higher and drops as the day goes on to allow us to get to sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep cortisol levels can be higher toward the end of the day (the day after inadequate sleep), which can cause us trouble when we’re trying to get some zzs. [study here]. We cant always help those nights when we get poor sleep, but getting into a good rhythm of going to bed at a certain time and waking at a certain (and same time) can help our bodies better regulate our cortisol levels.