Cortisol, often known as the primary stress hormone, is a steroid hormone released by the adrenal glands that is essential for a wide range of processes in the body. It controls aspects of metabolism, immune responses, and how the body responds to stress. Ideally, we would see our cortisol levels rise each morning as we wake to provide our body with the energy to begin our day and come out of a restful sleep. Over the course of the day, cortisol levels will slowly diminish to eventually end the day with low levels in order to get the body ready for sleep.
However, this is not common with anyone experiencing chronic stress. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight mode, on a long term and regular basis will begin to increase cortisol levels immensely and throw off that ideal pattern. The cortisol will end up activating the inflammatory cascade in the body and have less ability to “turn off” when stress is chronic rather than short lived, leading to potential serious health conditions over time.
Cortisol regulation is incredibly significant in how we go through life, so it is equally significant in understanding any potential threats to its ability to function. Although there are plenty of ways we could be experiencing chronic stress, there are a few main ones we should be extra mindful of.
● Perceived stress – Small amounts of stress we create, such as thinking about making an email perfect, or putting a task off due to fear of an outcome. This can happen so regularly and turn into chronic disruption of our cortisol levels.
● Blood sugar dysregulation – With too many periods of high blood sugar, insulin issues and resistance can create negative effects. And when blood sugar is too low, such as not eating for long periods, the body is stressed and releases cortisol because there is not enough glucose in the cells.
● Inflammation – Everything from metabolic issues to leaky gut, it is all promoting inflammation in the body, which releases more and more cortisol over time.
● Circadian rhythm disruption – Without a regular sleep schedule, our bodies will be stressed. They are meant to fall asleep and wake on a consistent basis, ideally with the sun setting and rising. It is more about staying consistent with the timing, rather than the actual amount of hours of sleep. Everyone needs a different amount. And with this information, what are some things we can do to naturally lower cortisol levels?
● Try meditation – Through slower breathing rate, lower blood pressure, and less muscle tension, meditation can activate the relaxation response through the HPA axis. It can be as simple as sitting for 5 minutes and not letting yourself be productive. This can be difficult in the beginning, but with practice it will eventually allow the body to more readily switch into parasympathetic mode (rest and digest).
● Get outside – As mentioned in my previous post on stress here, being in a forest environment, or forest bathing, can promote parasympathetic activity in the body and reduce cortisol.
● Eat on a regular basis – Eating consistently is so important in terms of taking care of and regulating the body’s hormones. It is something I discuss and implement with all of my nutrition patients, no matter the issue.
● Create a sleep schedule – Working to go to bed and wake up at fairly consistent times each day will create a better regulation in melatonin production. You will find yourself falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up in a much easier manner when you can work with your body rather than against it.