Cortisol! The really fun hormone that gives you energy but also can keep you from losing weight.. wait what??
Cortisol is a hot topic nowadays. Let's dive in!
What is cortisol?
Let's say you are hiking in the woods, and you see a bear. You immediately go into 'fight or flight' mode, AKA survival mode. One of the hormones that causes this is cortisol. This hormone activates your adrenal complex during times of stress. The catch? You don't have to see a bear to activate it. You could have a deadline at work, running on low sleep, exercising too hard, not eating enough, or a million other things that could be contributing to chronic stress.
In the body, cortisol does the following:
Increases glucose formation + breakdown of protein
Increases insulin resistance in the peripheral system
Inhibits sex hormone effects
Increases sodium retention
Suppresses immune function
Depletes body of magnesium, zinc, glutamine, carnitine
What SHOULD happen when your cortisol system is working correctly: Your body tells the production to stop, and your nervous system calms down once the stimulating situation is over
What CAN happen with prolonged stress/chronic stress/lack of coping: cortisol levels remain elevated due to persistent axis stimulation. This leads to a disruption in your HPA axis, leading to elevated levels of cortisol, feelings of chronic stress
Symptoms of Cortisol Dysregulation
· Chronic fatigue
· Issues sleeping
· Difficulty losing weight
· Increased abdominal fat, puffy face
· High blood pressure
· Hair loss
· Blood sugar issues
· Hormonal imbalances
How do we test for it?
Personally, high cortisol is something that I am comfortable treating without further testing, or at least doing a trial run. We can analyze your lifestyle, nutrition, history, etc, and often can come to the conclusion that cortisol could be your culprit.
Otherwise, we do a 4 part saliva test, to monitor your cortisol over a whole day. We also test your estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, and cortisone with this.
Your cortisol should peak in the morning when you first wake up, then decrease throughout the day
SO... How do we fix high cortisol?
Supplements: I think supplements can be very helpful, especially with higher cortisol. But if there was one condition that I would stress lifestyle changes more than supplements, this is it.
My go-to supplements for this include:
Adaptogens: These include herbs that are specifically for reducing the stress response in the body. This includes Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Maca, Ginseng, and Holy Basil
L-Theanine: This is a compound found in green tea that has been shown to help calm down brain waves, meaning it can help with a stress response and promote relaxation.
Phosphatidylserine: This is a phospholipid and component of cell membranes, having protective effects on the brain and nervous system.
Omega 3: A wonderful anti-inflammatory, showing to reduce cortisol
Lifestyle Changes: repeating this again, you need to make some healthy lifestyle changes to see a change in your cortisol. These include:
Maybe not fasting as often: Some people respond better to fasting than others, specifically men vs. women. We find that men can go longer without eating/fasting before it harms their cortisol, vs. women, who may need to eat a little bit more. I would recommend eating within 30 minutes of waking up, and making sure to eat a filling breakfast with lots of protein
Reduction in caffeine, especially during periods of fasting: If there was 1 habit that I see that wrecks cortisol, it is waking up in the morning and drinking coffee right away. Such a hard habit to break! But you are creating the perfect cortisol storm when doing that. Your cortisol is naturally highest right when you wake up, and it also rises with caffeine. I would recommend eating within 30 minutes of waking up, and then wait 30 minutes to consume caffeine. The rest of the day, I would recommend an average less than 200mg/day. When we are constantly stimulating ourselves with caffeine, we aren't giving our body a break to rest and digest.
Sleep: Making sure you are getting that precious 7-9 hours of sleep a night is crucial. Also, powering down your phone an hour before, not eating a few hours before bed, and sleeping in a cool and dark room will also help.
Consuming enough calories: You need to eat for your body to work, crazy right? When we aren't eating, our body can go into a little bit of a 'survival' mode, where it slows down your metabolism to preserve energy. This happens from months-years of undereating, not just a day. Work with a professional to find out how many calories are right for you, but I can tell you without even knowing you, 1000 calories a day isn't enough!
Choosing your exercise carefully: This is a hot topic. In my opinion, I think HIIT training, orange theory, and CrossFit can be very healthy and beneficial. However, what they all have in common is that they are intense, fast paced workouts. If you are someone with a cortisol imbalance or prone to cortisol sensitivities, these workouts may not be for you. Some people can do orange theory 5 days a week, and have perfect cortisol levels. Some can't. The safest bet is walking and strength training, with slow and controlled exercises. However, it is great to get the cardiovascular workouts from higher intensity in 1-2 a week, but if cortisol is an issue, it should not be your primary source of exercise.
Find ways to de-stress: So much easier said than done!! You need to find a way to de-stress your nervous system. This could be reading, journaling, yoga, meditation, painting, puzzles, talking with friends, walking, stretching, relaxing, IDC!! Some sort of habit that takes you away from your phone, allows you to check in with yourself, and de-stress. I would challenge you to try something DAILY.
High cortisol is a sneaky high cause of many of our diseases and conditions. Start small, self-analyze your lifestyle and see if you feel like some habits are stressing your nervous system.
As a functional medicine practitioner, this is where I shine. Let's get started!