What is Cortisol?

So many times in my Facebook group live streams, you’ll hear me mention “cortisol.”  “If you’re stressed, your cortisol levels are high.”  “If you have insulin resistance, there’s a possibility your cortisol levels are suppressing your immune system.”  But it occurred to me that you may not know exactly what cortisol is.  So this is a *very basic* explanation – keeping in mind that I haven’t gotten any professional degrees like MD, ARNP, RD, since we last talked.

Cortisol is a stress hormone essential for energy and health.  It can get out of balance though, and when it’s out of balance, you’re out of balance too.  It’s partially produced by the adrenal glands, little glands that sit on top of your kidneys, but the pituitary gland determines how much gets released.  It’s an alarm system that determines our fight or flight reflexes and usually works great, BUT…

Today’s culture is fast-paced.  We’re over-worked, under-rested, and under pressure from too many obligations, whether those obligations are work, family, social, etc. And this sort of pressure causes the alarm to never. turn. off.   It’s an alarm bell ringing throughout your body that keeps you in a chronic buzz of anxiety.

Do you ever wake up in the morning with a low-level panic attack already going on?  Your thoughts are racing, your heart rate is a little faster, and you just wish you could stay in bed and pull up the covers and go back to sleep? (Except, you really woke up a couple of hours before dawn and just dozed until the alarm went off).  Yeah, you know what I’m talking about – because *I*  know what I’m talking about.  That happens to me more frequently than I’d like to admit!

It might help to think of cortisol as the conductor of a vast orchestra of hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone, thyroid and insulin.  It will even raise your blood pressure and your glucose (blood sugar) when needed  When healthy, it’s like a slow release energy pill that wears off just in time for bedtime.
 Cortisol is a hormone we have to have, and when it’s healthy, it’s like a slow-release energy pill that maintains steady energy throughout the day, lowering just in time for bedtime (when serotonin takes over to help you sleep).  With chronic stress and cortisol releasing all the time, the slow release curve that starts high in the morning and dips at bedtime becomes more like a roller coaster.   And that roller coaster, because it requires so much energy for our body to keep up with, saps our brains of happy chemicals like the serotonin needed for sleep.   As a result we’ll have chronic agitation, which contributes to:
  • Insomnia,
  • Excess belly fat
  • Anxiety
  • Depression, and
  • Extreme fatigue, just to name a few.
Now do you see why it’s soooooo important?  And such a control freak?  What would happen if the conductor suddenly lost his mind in the middle of a concert?  All that chaotic noise is going on in our bodies when the conductor freaks out!
 So now that we know what it does, how important it is and what happens when it’s out of balance, is there anything to be done to fix this mess?  Well, yes, it can be fixed.  It takes time and patience to fix it all naturally, but the results are worth it!  Here are a few basic steps:
  • Cycle those carbs.  If you’re a person who tracks your food intake, especially your macros, eating a lower carb breakfast, moderate carbs at lunch and higher healthy carbs at supper will help with calming down cortisol.  Think healthy carbs like sweet potatoes and veggies, not pasta or bread.  Now, interestingly enough (for you keto peeps), avoiding carbs completely can cause cortisol to stay elevated when you want it to come down, so you have to determine whether or not you’re carb-sensitive and whether this is the reason that your cortisol is higher.
  • Drink your water.  Stay hydrated…we get more dehydrated when we’re under stress, and not just because we’re not drinking water.  A higher heart rate and faster, heavier breathing can lead to fluid loss.  In those cases, your water might be going right through you instead of to your cells.  Have you ever had to visit the bathroom just a few minutes after drinking water.  If that’s the case, you may not be getting the benefits of hydration.  This is all the more reason to reset your cortisol and drink MORE water.
  • Practice relaxation.  This is something we hear about almost as often as we hear “drink more water!”  Quiet time, a walk in the woods, doing yoga, pilates or any restorative exercise – anything that causes you to slow down and think, calms and centers you, will go a long way toward helping restore cortisol to a healthy level.  Think of it as an investment in yourself, with a huge return.
  • Workout timing.  You may be someone that is able to do hardcore cardio or a spin class in the late evening and go home and go right to bed because you’re so relaxed.  I’m one of those people (please don’t hate me).  And I know that depending on your work schedule,  late evenings may be the only chance you have.  In some cases, overtraining is the cause for these high levels.  I’ve actually had to tell some people to slow down and cut back on the weekly HIIT sessions and find something that’s more relaxing, but that will also tone their muscles.  High intensity workouts tend to raise cortisol levels, so if you’re susceptible and sensitive to these, it may be time to switch to yoga to relax you before bed.  As a result you may actually…
  • Get some better sleep.  Eating those healthier carbs at dinner will help keep cortisol from spiking in the middle of the night, which can cause you to wake up before done because your body doesn’t need it’s carb fix.  Instituting some good routines in the hour or so before bedtime will relax you and let your body know you mean business when it comes to restful sleep.
I hope this has given you a basic understanding of what’s meant when cortisol is mentioned.  Once you understand the problem, the steps to the solution become much easier to implement!
For more health information like this, in a judgement free zone, head on over to our Free Facebook Group – Second Act Fitness.  You have friends there you haven’t even met yet.  Any journey, even a healthy one, is much easier and way more fun with friends!
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