Americans are more rundown, sleep-deprived, and overweight than ever before. One common factor in our declining well-being is the stress hormone cortisol. Here’s what you need to know about how cortisol impacts your health, and what you can do to get it under control.
All About Cortisol
Cortisol, which is produced in our adrenal glands, keeps us alert and responsive to our environment, explains David Greuner, M.D., director of NYC Surgical Associates. When we’re faced with some sort of internal or external stress, our body churns out cortisol to help us deal with that stress.
“When the body’s evolutionary ‘fight-or-flight’ response turns on, cortisol curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in that stressful or dangerous situation,” says Greuner. For example, if you’re being chased by a bear, cortisol shuts down digestion (because who needs gas when you’re being chased by a bear?). When the threat has passed, cortisol production tapers off and hormone levels return to normal.
When released properly, cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels and metabolism, manages inflammation, and supports memory. However, if levels remain elevated for too long, it can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, says Lauren Deville, N.M.D., a naturopathic doctor with Nature Cure Family Health.
“This system is designed to only be activated in extreme crisis, but our bodies interpret a lot of our non-life-threatening daily stresses as crises,” Deville says. “We’re in this constant cycle of ‘I have to get this done or I’ll lose my job’ or ‘I have to get the kids to school, and then I have to clean the house, and why is everything so dirty, and I have to go to the grocery and cook…’ or ‘I don’t have time for this traffic, get out of my way!’”
Not only are our endless to-do’s and urgencies of the modern world overwhelming to think about, but they overwhelm our bodies, too. As we churn out more and more adrenaline in response to these stresses, our adrenals pump out cortisol to counterbalance it. Eventually, things get ugly.
The Health Effects Of Excess Cortisol
Rampant cortisol affects our health in a number of ways over time. Take our weight, for example. “Cortisol helps mobilize sugar from the liver to keep blood sugar stable between meals,” says Deville. While it can help maintain energy levels throughout the day when in the right amounts, it can lead weight gain in excess.
Cortisol is also our ‘wake up hormone,’ “so it can disrupt sleep if produced inappropriately at night, Deville adds. High levels of cortisol decrease the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which significantly affects our ability to have a deep, restful sleep. Eventually, this contributes to all-day-long fatigue.
Because cortisol also naturally suppresses our immune system (you wouldn’t want to waste energy fighting a cold when you’re busy running from a bear, either), imbalance can leave you vulnerable to frequent illness, too. Plus, the hormone thins our gut lining, which sets us up for poor digestion.
To manage our cortisol—even in the face of endless traffic jams and overflowing inboxes—we have to manage our stress. Easier said than done, we know—but these expert-approved tips can help.
1. Get A Good Night’s Sleep
“Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality increase cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels can then decrease sleep quality,” says licensed integrative physician Krisel Nagallo, N.M.D. It’s a vicious cycle.
Step up your sleep hygiene game by following a few guidelines:
- Commit to a routine bedtime.
- Cut out electronics one hour before bedtime (the medium-wavelength light our cell phones produce is correlated with increased cortisol production).
- Avoid caffeine after two o’clock in the afternoon
If you still feel restless when your head hits the pillow, Nagallo recommends drinking a non-caffeinated herbal tea, like chamomile or lemon balm, in the evening. These herbs interact with our parasympathetic nervous system, which shifts our body into relaxation mode.
2. Don’t Skip That Workout
While exercise does stress the body, it’s a positive stressor. The right amount of exercise at the right time can do wonders to help control cortisol levels.
“Moderate to intense exercise increases cortisol in the short term, but helps decrease cortisol at night,” Greuner says. Stressing our body in short, controlled doses helps our body (specifically something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis) become stronger and better able to respond to stressors beyond our control, explains Nagallo.
The government’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week should be enough to benefit your body’s stress regulation muscle.
3. Watch Your Sugar Intake
Eating too much sugar is one of the most common triggers of out-of-control cortisol. “Eating high-glycemic-index foods (think sugar and refined carbs) causes a rapid spike in blood sugar, and eventually a quick spike in cortisol,” explains Greuner. After your blood sugar spikes and insulin shuttles that blood sugar to our cells, our blood sugar crashes. This signals cortisol to step in and release stored sugar into our blood stream to energize us.
Not to mention, “the inflammatory refined carbs and sugars found in processed foods are stressful for the body to break down,” says DeVille. So, fast food and anything bagged, boxed, canned, or prepackaged can further affect cortisol.
4. Practice Yoga Or Meditation Regularly
Research shows that stressful thoughts spike cortisol release, so training our minds is incredibly important for managing stress and its hormonal havoc.
“Any stress-relieving practice, including yoga and meditation, helps to put the body in the parasympathetic state of ‘rest and digest,’” says Deville. These practices decrease the body’s demand for cortisol.
Thing is, stress-relieving practices are only as effective as they are regular. Going to a single yoga class won’t magically reverse cortisol issues. Work on your practice at least several times a week, if not daily, says Deville. After all, research shows that just 30 minutes of yoga a day can help lower cortisol levels.
5. Up Your Magnesium Intake
“When the body is stressed, our body dumps the soothing mineral magnesium into our bloodstream to help us stay calm,” says Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women’s Health.
If we don’t rest and replace that magnesium, though, our body doesn’t have sufficient stores to utilize the next time we’re feeling stressed. Plus, magnesium deficiency throws off HPA axis function, which causes excessive cortisol production, says Dean. Most Americans face some sort of stress on the daily and fall short on magnesium, a recipe for regular cortisol roller coaster rides.
Women should aim to eat 320 milligrams per day, while men should eat 420. Almonds, cashews, spinach, and black beans are all good sources. If you struggle to get enough magnesium from food alone, though, a supplement can help you get your fill. Dean recommends magnesium citrate, an easy-to-absorb form of the mineral. Try mixing the powder into hot or cold water and sipping throughout the day.
6. Consider Other Stress-Fighting Supplements
Magnesium isn’t the only nutrient that helps your body ward off excess cortisol and its effects.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests we consume 250 milligrams of omega-3s per day. If you don’t meet those needs through food alone (many don’t), a supplement can help fill any gaps.
Adaptogens, a category of herbs known for supporting the body’s ability to adapt to stress, have also become incredibly popular for fending off excess cortisol. One of the most popular: ashwagandha. One study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that adults with a history of chronic stress who supplemented with 300 milligrams of ashwagandha daily for 60 days experienced marked reductions in cortisol.
“I have a lot of success with using adaptogenic botanicals, such as ashwagandha, to decrease cortisol levels and improve adrenal health,” says Nagallo. She typically gives patients personalized daily doses of one or more of these adaptogens for six to 12 months. Other adaptogens, like rhodiola, withania, schizandra, and holy basil, can be helpful, too, adds Deville.
7. Make Time For Fun
Seemingly little things, like even just cracking a smile, have a powerful influence on our body. According to Nagallo, laughing is associated with inducing a parasympathetic state, in which your body feels at ease.
That said, anything you can do to chuckle more often is a good idea. Still, “while any laughter can work to decrease cortisol levels, a recent study showed spontaneous laughter has a longer-lasting effect,” says Nagallo. Unsurprisingly, true, natural laughter (in reaction to, say, a funny video) has a more potent effect that stimulated laughter (like that in laughing exercises). So, if you’re extra stressed at work, go ahead and fire up a funny YouTube video. It might just help prevent the cortisol spike that could throw you off for the rest of the day.