With holiday season right around the corner, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the go, go, go mentality. However, falling victim to the chaotic energy of this time is dangerous, especially for your stress levels. If you’re feeling stressed out all the time, it could be throwing your cortisol levels off their natural pattern, creating high cortisol levels. Luckily, there are ways to recognize these signs, so you can naturally lower your cortisol levels and get back to feeling like your normal self again.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that helps to regulate the stress response—you need cortisol in order to feel alert and emotionally balanced—it manages your body’s daily rhythm. Like your body’s built-in coffee pot, it increases your blood pressure, your heart rate and your breathing rate, giving you a natural energy boost to take on whatever stressors come your way. For short-term obstacles, it’s a good thing, but if you’re chronically stressed, it can lead to high cortisol, impacting your health and well-being.
Symptoms of high cortisol levels
In our modern, fast-paced society, there are many factors that can throw off our cortisol levels. These include: pollutants, medications, sugars (especially fructose) and emotional stressors. We’re exposed to many of these without even realizing it. You may have imbalanced cortisol levels if you find yourself experiencing: depression, anxiety, trouble winding down for bed, strong food cravings (especially for sugar and carbs), headaches, fatigue and a weakened immune system. While you may have some of these symptoms, it’s still important to get your cortisol levels checked if you’ve been feeling off. Meet with your doctor or Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner to determine if your cortisol levels are higher than normal.
Manage and reduce stress
There are simple steps you can take to minimize stress, which will help naturally reduce your cortisol levels. Trying meditation or mindfulness practice helps activate your body’s relaxation response. Daily meditation practice—whether through an app or a class—can help lower cortisol, slow your breathing rate, relax your muscles and reduce your blood pressure. It also helps reduce regions of your brain that control worrying. Moreover, acupuncture treatments can reduce stress and some of the symptoms you may experience with high cortisol levels, including headaches and muscle pain. Finally, spending time outdoors and getting some form of exercise, whether it’s walking or yoga, is an effective way to reduce anxiety. Avoid overexerting yourself and instead work to find a balance in gentle physical activity.
Switch to whole, natural foods
To lower your cortisol levels, you’ll need to focus on your body’s natural cortisol cycle and time your food intake more strategically. If you go too long without eating, your cortisol will spike in dramatic ways, causing problematic symptoms. To avoid that and keep your cortisol levels in balance, it’s best to eat three nutritious meals throughout the day, and two to three snacks in between.
Start your day with a protein—think eggs and sweet potato zoodles. A nutritious snack like a handful of nuts (almonds or walnuts) can help with the late morning natural dip in cortisol. For lunch, take plenty of time to eat in a mellow setting with few distractions. That means no sad desk lunches! Another nutritious snack around 2 or 3 p.m., like freshly sliced veggies, will help you get ahead of the late-afternoon crash (i.e. a natural dip in your cortisol levels). Opt for an early, light dinner with a small serving of healthy carbs like quinoa or brown rice. This will regulate your blood sugar levels and help you have a more relaxed, sound sleep.
Balancing cortisol with light
We don’t often think about the impact that light can have on our health. But interaction with light at the wrong times can throw off our cortisol. When we’re exposed to blue light after dark (i.e. all the scrolling you do on your phone before bed), your body is getting the message that it’s early afternoon and instead produces cortisol and reduces melatonin. This is the complete opposite of what we should do to get an optimal night’s sleep. On the flip side, when we spent a lot of time indoors (i.e. when you sit at your desk all day), and don’t get any outdoor light exposure, our body never gets a clear sign of night and day. It’s especially important to make time for natural light during these fall and winter months, when there is less overall daylight.
Putting sleep first is one of the most important steps to take in reducing stress, but can often be difficult to do. If your cortisol levels are too high or too low, you won’t be able to get rejuvenating sleep. Ideally, getting to bed by 10 p.m. will help you avoid a late evening cortisol spike which can make it hard to get to sleep and rest well. Going to sleep by this time also takes advantage of your natural melatonin production, which helps your body wind down.