Many of us lead very busy lives and thrive on task lists. Those of us who idle high tend to be fast moving people with lots of ideas and have our hands in many things. Although we may accomplish a lot, there can be a downside to this extreme task master behavior. In its extreme sense it can be costly to our health. Without trying to change the true character of people, it could be helpful to interject some healthy tools to improve balance and promote wellness.
Over the years I have had my own adventures with excess cortisol and have worked closely with many people who have also experienced its ill effects. I am writing to share information and ideas that may help others learn how to “down-regulate” their nervous systems to support health.
Let’s explore more about cortisol to better understand what it is, how it relates to each of us and what simple things we can do to improve our health.
What is cortisol?
-Cortisol is a necessary multipurpose hormone. Not only does it provide increased energy and alertness in everyday life, it is also intimately involved with blood pressure and stabilizing blood sugar/glucose. When working properly, it is both essential and beneficial. Yet, in excess or if diminished it can lead to dysfunction, poor performance, inadequate sleep and imbalanced blood sugar.
-It is released by the adrenal glands, which are part of the endocrine system, located atop the kidneys in our low back and are about the size of walnuts.
-It is regulated by sensors in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands located in the brain. -Cortisol is carried throughout our bodies by our blood and in our cells.
-Cortisol has a fluctuating natural rhythm of increasing and decreasing based on the time of day and the need for energy or alertness. Ideally there is a gradual increase in the morning as the sun rises and a gradual decrease in the PM as the sun sets. It has an inverse relationship to melatonin which aids in natural sleep cycles. When cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa. High cortisol later in the day can lead to poor sleep.
-It is often referred to as one of the stress hormones. At times of high stress, cortisol increases as other functions diminish so we can tend to the present emergency or urgency. The resulting decreased actions involve digestion, reproduction and our immune system. This is why so many of us have trouble with digestion or illness with prolonged stress. Some people even experience trouble conceiving due to extended times of stress.
-Cortisol has a direct correlation with glucose/ blood sugar, insulin and cardiac function. With increased cortisol, there is increased blood flow (heart rate and blood pressure) and the release of extra glucose. This provides extra energy for the necessary ability to function mentally and physically at a higher level. With a surplus of glucose, more insulin is required to manage the rise in blood sugar. A rise in blood glucose can also cause a rise in cortisol. This may help explain why our medical providers inquire about our stress levels and encourage us to adopt stress relieving practices to better manage it, especially if we have cardiac or blood sugar issues.
What is the harm in excess cortisol?
In surplus, cortisol can lead to:
Blood sugar imbalances (glucose and insulin dysfunction, pre-diabetic, insulin insufficiency, etc)
Cardiac issues -arrhythmia and hypertension (high blood pressure)
Cognitive changes – attention deficit and brain fog
Digestive dysfunction -upset stomach, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea
Dizziness or headaches
Energy and mood swings
Increased histamine release and decreased ability to clear them from our bodies, increased sensitivity to food and environmental allergens
Inflammation, primarily from increased glucose and insulin. As we know, excess inflammation can lead to illness and disease, challenging our immune system, cardiac, digestive health etc…and even adrenal fatigue (maybe better known as “burnout”/exhaustion). A more modern term is HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary – adrenal) axis dysfunction.
Mental and mood changes with stress/anxiety/depression, irritability, grumpiness and impatience
Pain and increased muscle tension
Sleep issues – trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or early awakening. Sometimes a random rush of stress occurs, even without obvious stressors (especially in the AM when cortisol is highest)
Weight gain, weight loss or inability to gain or lose weight
Notice how increased cortisol can lead to increased anxiety/stress and vice versa. This can become a problematic cycle.
Medical disclaimer: This writing is not intended to treat medical conditions. In advanced stages, cortisol imbalance, adrenal dysfunction and stress can cause more severe illness and disease. Seek medical care if symptoms persist. There may be a deeper underlying cause of the cortisol imbalance that may require treatment beyond these basic conservative measures. This information may be helpful to support but not replace formal medical care.
What are some possible causes of increased cortisol?
Prolonged or repeated stress, especially if unmanaged or under processed. This comes in a variety of forms: mental, emotional or physical stressors.
A few examples:
Busying activities and extensive perpetual task master lists
Dealing with illness, disease, death or other tragedies. This can include the anticipation or occurrence of our own personal instances of crisis, or in regards to someone near and dear to us.
Excess stimulants – caffeine, alcohol, sugar and simple carbohydrates. High sugar foods or refined simple carbs that cause a quick rise in blood sugar can also cause a cortisol spike. Caffeine and sugar may be obvious stimulants but alcohol can be puzzling. Initially, alcohol acts as a relaxant and we feel more calm and free from stress, but later presents with the reverse effect, often causing interrupted sleep and the magnified return of stress.
Extreme high levels of exercise, repeated or sustained over time
Pressures and intensity of work or school
Stressful relationships and events
Too much technology time:
Television, computer, phone, movies. especially fast paced high drama events like news, or shows with high stress provocation.
Our bodies are designed for fluctuating degrees of stress and calm with the ability to recover from short bouts of elevated stress hormones. People have varying tolerances and reactions to stress as well as varying abilities to bounce back from stress. Most of us can relate to the fact that stressful events can have causative ill effects on some level.
What are some conservative lifestyle measures we can implement to support our bodies’ ability to better manage stress and to help minimize excess cortisol?
Balancing the circadian rhythm:
Attempt to create routines and schedules that are repeatable most of the time. This includes similar times for meals, exercise, rest and bed. The body works best in cyclical ways and all systems interact in an intimate fashion. If we create patterns in our daily lives, our bodies can perform at a higher level of proficiency and efficiency.
Certain supplements and herbs may be helpful. Consult with your medical specialist/doctor to see what might be right for you. A few commonly used are: ashwaganda, l-theanine, B vitamins (there are a total of 8, called “B complex”), vitamin C, magnesium, L-threonate (a form of magnesium more easily absorbed by the brain), selenium and GABA.
Do not take supplements without reputable research and exploring with your personal qualified health practitioner. Remember the purpose of supplements is to supplement and support our wellness program of a healthy diet and lifestyle not to replace our good measures. When adding new supplements and herbs to your wellness routine I recommend trying one at a time for a month or so to be clear on its effects.
Support the nervous system with real foods.
A few examples of nutrient dense nourishing foods to help with stress effects:
Magnesium rich foods: pumpkin seeds, spinach, almonds, black beans.
Foods rich in B vitamins: broccoli and other leafy greens- folate(B9), eggs -biotin(B7), meats pyridoxine (B6), cobalamin (B12) and salmon/fish -niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), cobalamin (B12).
For vegans it is essential to support the diet with a supplement to get the full spectrum of B vitamins.
Avoid or minimize caffeine, alcohol and sugar. All three can be considered “over the counter” drugs and in excess can have strong ill affects on our health if mismanaged. For many people these substances may act like gasoline on a fire in relation to cortisol and stress. If you drink coffee, be sure to drink water prior to coffee in the morning. Our bodies can be somewhat dehydrated after a full night of sleep and quickly absorb what we take in first. This can be overstimulating.
-Eat breakfast and avoid these stimulants by themselves.
-When consuming these substances, combine with quality fat, protein and complex carbs or fiber rich foods to help taper the stimulating affects.
Avoid low blood sugar.
-Eat regularly. Try to avoid long stretches of time without food. Eat every 3 or 4 hours in the daytime.
The exception to this guideline is Dr Bredeson’s Ketoflex 12/3 diet. The plan is to stop all food and beverages within three hours of bed and wait twelve hours before the next day’s meal. i.e. dinner at 7pm and breakfast after 7am the next day. This allows our bodies to obtain better sleep and optimize internal organ function during this rest and recovery time which will help decrease inflammation and balance hormones.
-Pay attention to glycemic index. Eat more low glycemic foods. These are the foods that have the least impact on blood sugar. Increase quality protein, fat and fiber to help balance blood sugar.
-Avoid simple carbs and highly refined foods. These are the high glycemic index (GI) foods that quickly turn to sugar in the bloodstream causing extreme fluctuations in blood glucose. When eating high glycemic foods, try to pair with low to help offset the negative affects. High GI foods also act like stimulants in the body and elevate cortisol.
Eat real food with natural ingredients with a variety of color to support our internal mechanisms to promote calm. Strive for a minimum of five hearty colorful vegetables (always including green) and two fruits (mostly organic berries) per day.
Avoid eating foods that you may be sensitive to. If you know you don’t feel well after eating certain foods or ingredients try to minimize or eliminate them from your diet. This may sound obvious, but we all know there are some foods or ingredients that bother us and we eat or drink them anyway.
When certain foods cause digestive issues, histamine, or allergic type reactions, a bodily stress reaction occurs that can influence the release of cortisol.
Aim for 1/2 your body weight in ounces per day. ie. 150 pound person strives for 75 ounces of clear non caffeinated fluids/water per day. Basic broth-type soups add to this equation. Avoid fluids after dinner to diminish broken sleep with the need to pee frequently in the night. 64 ounces is usually more than adequate for most people. Even increasing what we already do by one or two more glasses could make a healthy difference. Many people use a consistent glass or bottle that they refill and track throughout the day.
Help calm/balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS):
Most of us spend a lot of time in the elevated side of the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system, better known as the “fight or flight” state. This ignites stress and elevates cortisol and vice versa. By including some of the following activities we can create greater calm in our system. Spending more time in the relaxed state of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and recover state). This can help counteract the effects of high cortisol.
-Focused breath work: This could be part of a meditation practice or simply interjected frequently throughout the day. There are many varieties and practices. What matters most is to pay attention to the breath as it enters and exits and welcome a slightly slower gentle pace. Following the breath usually allows a fuller breath stimulating the diaphragm which in turn effects the vagus nerve and helps increase the PNS to promote a calming result.
-Fresh air, and time in nature. There are new studies about “nature bathing” and the positive impact of spending time in nature. I think we all can relate to the power of observing or being out in nature. Many people enjoy gardening with our hands in the soil or time at the beach with our toes in the sand. Even inside our homes we can enjoy simple acts of connecting with nature by watching bird feeders outside our window or fish tanks inside. These activities can be very beneficial and soothing.
-Gentle exercise – ie. yoga, tai chi, walking, casual biking. Finding the right balance of higher levels of cardiovascular and strength training exercise mixed with gentle exercise is very individual and may vary from person to person. 100-150 minutes of moderate exercise per week is ideal. This may look something like 20-30 minutes per session for five days per week. To deal with life’s stressors and support our nervous system it is essential to incorporate gentle calming activities. A simple addition could be tacking on 5-10 minutes of stretching or resting quietly after an exercise routine or dedicating one or two times a week of a yoga session or a peaceful walk in nature.
-Get a massage. The power of gentle touch can be very balancing.
-Improve sleep hygiene. Promoting quality sleep to get six to eight hours of good solid rest each night.
-Increase times of low stimulation. Maybe that’s with less light, using low light lamps instead of overhead lighting or finding time for less noise and chatter. Resting with a small cloth over our eyes or placing hands over eyes for a few minutes to block out light and relax the eyes. Listening to gentle calming music or some time in silence. Maybe some time alone. Noise canceling headphones or earplugs may be helpful too.
-Journaling/writing. Sometimes purging thoughts can be helpful to clear the mind and lower stress. A gratitude or happiness journal could also be beneficialwhere we jot down or write about events and simple pleasures of the day.
–Meditation: this could be as basic as setting a timer and allowing for 5-10 minutes in the early afternoon to sit quietly. I refer to this as “pushing the reset button”. There are many meditation apps and Youtube videos to follow if you would like guidance. Meditation involves being in a quiet uninterrupted place and focusing on your breathing to help get centered and grounded. It doesn’t need to be complicated or lengthy to be effective.
-Mindfulness: Tap into multiple senses to be more present and mindful. Feel your feet on ground, notice colors and simple sounds in the background, textures to touch or taste in foods.
-Participating in fun & joyful activities. Schedule and attend events or do things that bring pleasure and happiness. This can be elaborate trips and events like concerts and comedy events or very simple pleasures like gardening, bird watching or time with a dear friend or loved one. Spend time with people you love and enjoy, people that appreciate you too.
-Pause & create space to allow room to be still and “reset”.
“What makes a fire burn is space between the logs, a breathing space.” (a line from Judy Brown’s poem “Fire”) . These words speak to me:
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.
We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
simply because the space is there,
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.
“Sacred Pause” by Tara Brach (one of my favorite talks about stress management and being present in life)
–Pause before reacting in stressful situations. We get to choose whether we want to fuel or defuse a situation. Responding in anger and negativity can make an interaction go south and the cortisol go north.
-Practice gratitude, positivity and appreciation. Shifting our mindset to positive thoughts rather than focusing on deficiencies and negativity can have a direct calming affect on our nervous system. This can take form in card or letter writing, journaling, quietly stating or thinking positivity, praying and reframing self talk from a negative critical mindset on a regular basis. Negativity bias is a common occurrence and without retraining it can be easy to get stuck there with a significant cost to our health.
-Practice single tasking now and then instead of always multitasking. Maybe that is as basic as standing still while brushing teeth or focusing on each dish we wash or rinse from dinner.
-Remove self from stressful situations and people when possible.
-Try some talk therapy, quiet space and mental processing. Confront the stressor when necessary. Some stressors subside with time while others require more attention. Seeking a trusted professional may be helpful. Own your triggers and work on inequities. Acknowledge what “sets us off” and do some personal growth work to improve.
-Try moving a bit slower instead of rushing about. Hesitate before opening a door or moving to the next task/project.
Where to start?
Everyone is different and the necessity or ability to completely eliminate all triggers can be very challenging and not always possible or necessary. It may take some trial and error and oftentimes help from a professional to sort it all out.
If there are multiple triggers, start where you think you will have the greatest success. Have a heart to heart, or head to head meeting with yourself. Maybe that’s quietly in your head, pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Ask yourself a few questions:
Which trigger you are willing to work on? Where you are willing to start?
Which trigger may be impacting your health the most?
How long you are wiling to trial? Set an achievable time to start with. Two weeks is usually viable and results can often be seen. Maybe you need to take “one day at a time”. These mini accomplishments on our health add up and allow us to create more healthy measures little by little.
How much support do you need and from who? Maybe you decide to involve an accountability partner to help stay on track or someone to talk with to help manage this process? Maybe a friend, a therapist, a medical professional or a health and wellness coach?
Do you need to decrease or fully eliminate something? Some items like caffeine may need to be more gradual so as not to create more triggers like headaches. Are symptoms such that it would be okay to have coffee once a week or does it need full elimination? Personality-wise it may be more realistic to eliminate something than to cut back for optimal success? Sometimes it’s easier to fully eliminate a trigger rather than decrease. It can be a much needed reset.
Maybe it’s more about adding in a healthy diet item or lifestyle. Sometimes it feels better to focus on the adding in rather than always eliminating and feeling deprived. We can think of this as “crowding out”. By interjecting more healthy foods and activities like yoga or meditation we have less time or desire for the unhealthy habits.
I like the 90:10 rule here. It’s what we do most of the time not just some of the time. Practice healthy lifestyles ninety percent of the time and we’ll have a better chance of wellness and balancing the extra undesirable surges of cortisol.
Click below for Theresa’s free 20 minute guided meditation on YouTube:
youtube link to meditation
- Pause & Breathe, Feel your feet on the Ground. Be Well!