Hormonal Harmony Pt. 1: Cortisol and the Goldilocks Zone
Today’s blog post is the first in a series based on a recent interactive Zoom series I did on balancing hormones with holistic nutrition. Today’s topic is cortisol imbalance, how one’s cortisol becomes imbalanced in the first place, and how we can achieve that ideal “Goldilocks” zone.
When it comes to cortisol and stress, there really is such a thing as too little AND too much. Ideally, we have enough stress in our lives to keep us focused and motivated, but not so much that our adrenal glands cannot keep up, which would leave us feeling absolutely burnt out and exhausted.
Aiming for the goldilocks zone means not only feeding our bodies the nutrients our adrenals need to work optimally but also incorporating stress-minimizing techniques into our lifestyle so that we can effectively cope with stress as it ebbs and flows in our lives.
Let’s begin by talking a little bit about cortisol in general.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, like aldosterone and testosterone, and it’s produced by the adrenal glands. It’s essential for regulating glucose metabolism, immune system hormones, cardiovascular function, and the metabolism of the fats, protein, and carbs you eat.
But the thing that cortisol is best known for is providing the body with a much-needed surge in energy when the sympathetic nervous system, aka fight-or-flight response, is activated by a threat in our environment. In the times of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this response was activated when a threat entered the external environment: for example, coming across a giant deadly snake while foraging berries.
In this situation, the pituitary gland would send a signal that there’s imminent danger to the adrenals, which would then pump out some cortisol, increasing immediate energy production at the expense of other bodily functions that aren’t as important for survival, like digestion for example.
Our external senses would become heightened and we’d get a surge of energy thanks to cortisol triggering the release of some much needed glucose into our system, providing our limbs with the energy needed to run away as fast as we can or stay and fight that snake to the death.
Luckily for us, we don’t encounter deadly snakes on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean our stress response isn’t going into overdrive often. Unfortunately, all our pituitary gland needs to send a signal for the adrenals to do their thing is to perceive a threat- whether in our external environment or internal environment. Which basically means, an imagined threat is enough to set this response into motion. In other words, a bad habit of constantly ruminating on the past or worrying about a future project is enough to do the job.
So basically, there’s no such thing as an entirely stress-free existence. Which is fine because stress is not all bad. You need a bit of stress to put some pep in your step!
But in reality, we are constantly being bombarded with information, and our to do lists are becoming infinitely long (or so it seems), and there’s so much going on in our personal lives and on this planet to worry about (or so it seems), so it’s easy to get caught up in a never ending stress loop. It happens to the best of us.
And like I said, cortisol levels are constantly ebbing and flowing. Think of it as a pendulum. Throughout a given day, our cortisol levels will slowly and pretty predictably shift from one end of the pendulum to the other. When something out of the ordinary happens that spikes our stress level, our cortisol pendulum swings over to the “overdrive” side. Just like in the example with the snake.
Unfortunately for a lot of women in particular, our pendulums get caught in overdrive, and are rarely (if ever) able to swing back into equilibrium. In fact, this is why high cortisol is easily the most common hormonal imbalance among women today.
The HPA: Stress and Your Adrenals
The master commander of the entire central stress response system is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus surveys the environment for any possible threats, and alerts the pituitary gland (our second in command) if a threat is perceived. The pituitary gland then signals to the adrenals to pump out the cortisol, which behaves as a “chemical messenger” signalling to the cells in the body to behave in a certain way that favours our survival.
When the hypothalamus becomes too vigilant and is incessantly sending alerts to the pituitary and adrenals, the adrenals simply start ignoring the commands of the hypothalamus. This is an issue because perpetual activation of the HPA axis leads to overactivity, followed over time by under-activity.
In other words, once you’ve burned through your adrenal reserve, your once-hyperactive HPA just becomes sluggish. This leads to symptoms like exhaustion, increased likelihood of getting sick because the immune system is weakened, decreased sex drive, low blood pressure, and general feelings of malaise.
In a nutshell, this is how cortisol imbalance can swing from overall high cortisol levels (when the HPA is in overdrive) to very low cortisol levels- when the HPA and adrenal reserves are spent.
Cortisol and Aging
One of cortisol’s main jobs is to normalize blood glucose levels. When you make too much cortisol, you raise your blood sugar excessively, which can lead to prediabetes or diabetes, two common causes of accelerated aging. Just to put this into perspective, one in three American adults is prediabetic. It’s way more common than you might think.
Even too much “good stress” can accelerate aging. Take a marathon runner for example. Marathons and the training required to complete them is extremely hard on the body and can be very taxing on the adrenals. So, in comparison to a yogi, for example, the marathon runner will absolutely age faster due to high cortisol levels, which means they also have an increased likelihood of getting sick and getting injured more.
One of the most concerning things relating to stress and accelerated aging is that research has shown that prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels actually restricts overall blood flow to the brain, which of course affects brain function, but also emotional composure and emotional intelligence, and it even speeds up age-related cognitive decline like Alzheimer’s Disease.
In fact, Alzheimer’s can become established decades before symptoms show up. To tie it in with blood-sugar imbalance, some doctors are starting to recognize Alzheimer’s disease as type 3 diabetes. So diet and lifestyle is so incredibly important to keep stress levels and blood sugar balanced.
If you’re wondering if it’s possible to slow aging, or reverse some of the damage done by high cortisol, it’s absolutely possible! To slow the aging process, we basically have to prevent overly taxed adrenal glands and keep cortisol levels to a minimum. If adrenals are already overburdened, we can work with specific nutrition and lifestyle protocols to immensely reduce the stress on the adrenals so they can catch up and restore the balance within the HPA axis.
The good news is that there are dietary and lifestyle changes one can make (as well as supplements one can take) to help bring cortisol levels back into balance, whether too high or too low.
Signs and Symptoms of High and Low Cortisol
Maybe you’re thinking, okay… but how do I know if my cortisol is out of balance? The answer is check your symptoms!
The following list is of the most common symptoms and signs of low cortisol:
– Always feeling like you’re racing from one task to the next
– Anxiety, nervousness, mood swings
– Cravings for sweets
– Rapid weight gain and/or increased visceral (belly) fat
– Feeling “hangry” in between meals
– Indigestion and/or heartburn
– Feeling tired yet wired at bedtime
– Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep
– High blood pressure
The following list is of the most common symptoms and signs of high cortisol:
– Low-level fatigue all day long
– Needing a nap in the afternoon
– Feeling unable to cope with stress effectively
– Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
– Always getting colds or flus
– Cravings for salty foods
– Alternating constipation and diarrhea
– You feel more “glass half empty” compared to the past
– You cry easily, sometimes for no good reason
– Low blood pressure
A High Cortisol Protocol
Now that you know how these imbalances occur and what it feels like to experience them, it’s time to talk protocols!
Our high cortisol protocol is set on a foundation of an anti-inflammatory diet. Since modulating inflammation is one of cortisol’s roles, to keep adrenals working well and reduce the chance of overburdening them, this is very important. Common foods that create inflammation in the body are gluten, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, processed and microwaved foods, processed meats, and sugar. (Yes, sadly sugar.)
It’s not just about eliminating the not-so-good stuff though. We also want to include more nutrient-dense foods like all veggies, dark leafy greens, fruits, sweet potato, squashes, good quality fats and proteins, and whole grains. Plus lots and lots of water.
Limiting alcohol consumption is a big one also. You might think that alcohol helps you cope with stress, but it does quite the opposite. Simply put, drinking alcohol raises cortisol levels. So, if you have high cortisol levels, significantly reducing or eliminating alcohol all together is worth it.
Unfortunately, caffeine is a no-no as well. Caffeine directly induces the adrenocortical cells to produce more cortisol, as well as more adrenaline, and insulin. We drink it for the energizing effect obviously, but it can do more harm than good if you have high cortisol levels.
In terms of lifestyle recommendation, I’ve listed a few practises that have been studied and shown to reduce cortisol levels, but any healthy coping mechanism that helps minimize stress can be implemented to help balance out cortisol. (For example: journaling, regular massages, acupuncture, etc.)
My first lifestyle recommendation is a great mindfulness technique for people who aren’t really into meditating. You can practise a self-led “quick coherence technique” which requires no special equipment and is very effective, or you can purchase an emWave HeartMath monitor which actually monitors your heart-rate variability. This HeartMath training has been shown to reduce cortisol levels by 23%.
Next is yoga! According to Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Cure, yoga is the best tonic for stress and getting your cortisol to a sweet spot. Yoga combines movement, breathwork, mindful presence and chanting, so it really is like a quadruple whammy for stress release. I’ve found it to be especially helpful for anxiety and insomnia.
Gratitude is another amazing way to reduce low-grade, chronic stress and lower cortisol levels. All you have to do is think about or write down the things you’re grateful in your life. I love doing this as part of my morning meditation. I end the meditation by thinking for a few minutes about all the blessings in my life and you feel an immediate difference in your body.
As I’m sure most of you have heard before, neurons that fire together, wire together. This means the more you have certain thoughts, the more your brain defaults to those thoughts. So, changing your outlook and incorporating an attitude of gratitude will over time improve your ability to handle stress in your life.
Supplements can be very helpful for rebalancing high cortisol levels as well. I recommend a combination of fish oil, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory, vitamin C, which has been shown in several studies to lower cortisol levels during stressful situations, and ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb that has been used for thousands of years for many reasons, including countering the effects of high stress levels.
A Low Cortisol Protocol
My high cortisol protocol is similar to the low cortisol protocol in that reducing inflammation should be the foundation of your diet. In addition to reducing inflammatory foods and increasing anti-inflammatory foods, it’s also important to mega-dose nutrients to replenish adrenal reserves as quickly as possible.
The best way to do this is to eat the “brainbow”: aim to eat at least every colour of the rainbow every day. Smoothies and green juices are great for this- and you’ll most likely find your body starts to crave more and more.
Hydration might seem like a no brainer, but dehydration is a hallmark of adrenal exhaustion. When cortisol is low and aldosterone is depleted, the body’s ability to regulate blood pressure and balance sodium and potassium in the blood is affected. Without adequate amounts of aldosterone, the body tends to lose water faster than normal, resulting in chronic dehydration. This can become a major issue if left un-checked. Adding some coconut water to your day is great for it’s natural electrolytes, or adding some pink or celtic sea salt to your water bottle provides your body with some trace minerals needed to re-balance electrolytes.
My first lifestyle recommendation for low cortisol is alternating nostril breathing, a form of pranayama (a.k.a. yogic breath) that has been shown to lower pulse rate, reduce blood pressure, and even help with problem solving abilities. Since one of the worst parts about having low cortisol levels is feeling like your ability to problem solve is diminished, this is great to incorporate several times a day.
Another recommendation is incorporating movement that you enjoy every day. One study found that in comparison to yoga, which lowers cortisol and raises mood, dancing (specifically African dancing) raises cortisol and mood. Though there haven’t been any studies on Zumba or similar dance-focused workouts, I’m sure they would have similar effects!
Recommended supplements include omega-3 fish oil, to reduce inflammation levels in the body, and a B vitamin complex to provide a natural boost of energy. B vitamins have such an amazing effect on boosting energy in people who deal with fatigue and brain fog, that I actually recommend taking them with breakfast and lunch only, since they can actually keep you up at night if taken too late in the evening with dinner. There are two specific B vitamins, B5 and B6, which are super important for stress reduction and hormonal imbalance in general, specifically in women.
There you have it! If you suspect you have a cortisol imbalance, I encourage you to try out the protocol that makes the most sense for you and let me know how it goes!
And as always, if you have any questions for me, you can always send me an email to email@example.com or comment below!