Cortisol 101

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I was in my physical therapist/chiropractor/acupuncturist/Chinese medicine doctor’s office a couple weeks ago to work on a shoulder injury I’ve been rehabbing, and after we spent some time with manual therapy and exercises he starting practicing acupuncture on me. Before he began, he asked me a few questions: “How much are you sleeping?” “Are you stressed about something?” “What’s your diet like?”. He was asking me these questions to get an idea of what was going on in my body before he started the therapy, but also because he noticed that my body was holding on to water for some reason. He had to pull the ankle of my leggings up so my calf and shin were exposed for the acupuncture. He told me he noticed that the indention from my leggings remained for more than 10 minutes, which isn’t normal (hence the water weight). 

He was definitely on to something. I’ve been stressed (to say the least) for more than 6 months, and my sleep has been less than desirable. On top of training clients, I’m also blogging, teaching my new class Hustle + Flow and working on an ebook (that’s basically three full time jobs), so my stress levels have been through the roof. My sleep has been consistently interrupted and inconsistent lately as well, which is why I’ve actively been on a mission to get more sleep (blog post about that journey coming soon!). We started talking about cortisol levels and how this could be affecting the progress of the repair of my shoulder, weight loss and other things. Although I know about cortisol from studying personal training, yoga and nutrition, I wanted to dive a little deeper, so I came home that evening and immediately started researching cortisol, its effects and how to naturally stabilize and balance the hormone levels in my body. 

Here’s a little bit about cortisol:

Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in our adrenal glands* that is then released into the blood system and transports around the body. It is nicknamed the “stress hormone” because extra cortisol is released to help the body respond to stress appropriately. It’s responsible for several functions:

  • helps control blood sugar levels
  • reduces inflammation
  • regulates metabolism
  • controls the balance between salt + water in the body
  • aids in memory function
  • during pregnancy it supports the fetus

As with most extremes, problems arise when there is too much or too little cortisol released in the body. High levels contribute to a woman’s change in menstrual cycle + libido, cause weight gain, can cause anxiety and depression, and over time can cause Cushing Syndrome. Low levels cause weight loss, fatigue and mood swings. 

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Of course, cortisol levels change naturally depending on the time of day and the situation, and don’t always cause a negative response in the body. For example, because of the diurnal rhythm* our cortisol levels naturally rise in the morning to give us energy throughout the day, keep our immune response at its peak and keep inflammation at bay. The levels lower closer to the end of the day to help our bodies rest, sleep and repair. However, due to physical and emotional stress that I’ve been putting on my body lately (teaching class, exercising, working, lack of sleep), my cortisol levels likely aren’t dropping during the evening like they are supposed to, and are instead remaining in the high range throughout the day and into the night. This is probably creating a nasty (lack of) sleep cycle: I’m not sleeping well, which stresses out my body and then causes my cortisol levels to rise. My stress is high throughout the day (due to lack of sleep, etc.) so my cortisol levels aren’t lowering enough before bed, which makes it much harder for me to sleep. Sound familiar? I know I’m not the only one with these issues. 

While I’m all about taking time to myself and distressing (although I haven’t been too good at it lately), it’s unrealistic to think we can live a stress free life year round. However, problems start to arise when we are under constant physical, emotional and mental stress. The body is consistently creating “too much” cortisol (because of the fight or flight mentality caused by stress). And once there is too much cortisol released into the blood stream over a long period of time, you can develop Cushing Syndrome*.

Cushing Syndrome Symptoms:

  • rapid weight gain
  • high blood pressure
  • flushed, round face
  • purple/red stretch marks
  • fatty deposit between shoulder blades
  • anxiety/depression
  • osteoporosis
  • weak muscles
  • increased thirst/urination

Thankfully, there are ways to keep our cortisol levels in check naturally. Here are some tips:

  • Reset your sleep schedule by getting at least 7 hours of sleep (my body prefers at least 8, but we’re all different) per night. I like to keep my electronic use to a minimum an hour before bed, run a hot bath, light some candles and read. This helps slow my mind and body down and prepare for a solid night’s sleep. 
  • Eat a diet full of whole foods that are anti inflammatory, high in antioxidants, essential nutrients and fiber like:
    • colorful fruits and vegetables
    • healthy fats like coconut and olive oils
    • nuts and seeds
    • probiotics
    • lean protein
  • Stay away from foods that increase inflammation (which contribute to higher cortisol levels) such as:
    • high sugar
    • lots of trans fats
    • alcohol and caffeine

- Follow the natural light throughout the day. Waking up to natural sunlight can help to reset your natural morning cortisol cycle (diurnal cycle) which will help with mental clarity, mood and energy levels. Ideally we go to sleep when the sun goes down, but since that’s not very realistic, get to bed in time to achieve your 7 hour/night goal. 

*adrenal gland: located above the kidney, this gland is an endocrine gland that produces a variety of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. 

*diurnal rhythm: an activity pattern based on a 24 hour time period. 

*Cushing syndrome: can also be caused by the use of oral corticosteroid medication.