Cortisol is More Than Just a Stress Hormone

July 2022 - Health & Wellness

As you read this, there’s an important hormone that’s letting you sit up (or stand up) and stay focused to read each sentence. This hormone is your friend, cortisol.

Cortisol always gets a bad rap due to its connection to stress, but it does so many things in the body that to only call it a “stress hormone” would be undervaluing it immensely.

Yes, it does manage your stress response, and it also:
• Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins;
• Keeps inflammation down (at first—too much triggers inflammation);
• Regulates your blood pressure;
• Increases your blood sugar (glucose);
• Controls your sleep/wake cycle; and
• Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward.

Cortisol wakes you up in the morning and is the reason you can stand up, walk around and have a conversation. Without cortisol, you would be comatose.

There are three main problems with your cortisol levels that can affect your body: you have too much cortisol, you have too little cortisol or you get hit by cortisol at the wrong time of the day (evening or night).

A happy cortisol level rises and falls throughout the day. It starts to rise when you wake up in the morning, spiking just before lunch. Then it lowers throughout the afternoon, which allows for melatonin (your sleep hormone) to have the same kind of curve. Cortisol and melatonin dance together each day, each triggering the other.

Sometimes cortisol forgets to head down in the afternoon…
High cortisol is usually a response to stress but can also be from too much caffeine. That afternoon cup o’ joe can bring your cortisol level up when it should be heading down…and this can affect your melatonin and sleep.

High cortisol can also be inherited. It’s believed that stress hormones affect us in utero. If your mom was very stressed when she was pregnant with you, then your body’s stress hormone set-point can be high. This means that high cortisol might feel normal or even good in your body. You can reset your cortisol levels, don’t worry.

After prolonged times of stress, your cortisol system can be sitting low. Without a boost of cortisol in the morning, you can feel like you never woke up. You’re groggy and tired all day long. Your blood pressure may be low, so you’ll feel dizzy or lightheaded if you stand up too quickly.

It can also create an interesting phenomenon. Instead of cortisol spiking at noon and then going down until bedtime, it stays low all day and spikes around 10pm. Instead of getting tired and going to bed, you feel like a million bucks. Finally, you have enough energy to think clearly and do all of the tasks that you were too tired to do all day. Now you’re up until 1am or later cooking and doing laundry…making sleep even more difficult. It becomes a vicious cycle of feeling exhausted all day long and wide awake at bedtime.

Cortisol isn’t a mean old ogre that only wreaks havoc in the body. Instead, it’s an important hormone that allows you to walk, talk, move and think. But too much cortisol is a problem and we live in a high cortisol culture (busyness, lots of caffeine, work that doesn’t stop).

High cortisol levels can feel good at the moment—I have to admit that I’ve loved that feeling in the past. But balanced cortisol levels feel so much better.

Balance your cortisol levels

  1. Exercise, but not too much.
    Incorporate exercise into your lifestyle for 30–45 minutes, 3 to 5 times per week. The best exercise combines both strength training and cardio. Start where you are and increase the intensity as your body allows (don’t overdo it!). Exercise lowers cortisol and if there was a magic bullet for balancing cortisol, exercise is it! Be careful not to overdo it; if you’re exhausted after exercising, you’re doing too much. Easy and gentle is better.
  2. Watch your stimulants!
    Coffee and any other form of caffeine will raise your cortisol levels. Look at how much you’re consuming and see if you can cut down.
  3. Sleep.
    I don’t want to cause any extra sleep stress (I know many of you struggle with sleep), but it’s really important for balancing these hormones and I would be negligent if I didn’t add it here. If you can sleep well…but you’ve been staying up a bit too late—get to bed! If you struggle with sleep, talk to someone in the wellness department at your local Nature’s Fare for some sleep supplement suggestions.
  4. Enjoy lots of veggies.
    Your body is burning through extra minerals when you’re under stress. Cooked and steamed veggies are chock-full of nutrients, and this is also a good time to add some veggie juices.
  5. Bring in some destressing activities.
    Try walking in nature, meditation etc. Nature is full of cortisol-lowering magic! The trees release volatile gasses called phytoncides, which have been found to lower cortisol levels within 10 to 15 minutes of exposure.

Cortisol is your friend, not your enemy. By balancing your cortisol levels each day, you can feel more clear-headed and relaxed all day long. And you’ll sleep better…glorious, glorious sleep. In our super busy world, befriending and balancing your cortisol levels can be a key piece to your overall health. 

Lisa Kilgour, rhn is one of Nature’s Fare Markets’ nutritionists and sought-after speaker and educator who helps people heal from diverse and complex health issues. She has spoken at TEDxKelowna and is the author of Undieting: Freedom from the Bewildering World of Fad Diets.
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