Cortisol can be thought of as the loud pitched noise coming from the smoke detector. It can keep us safe in times of intense stress but when if it becomes chronic it can age and deteriorate us quickly. Stress has been considered to be the cause of most if not all chronic disease. If cortisol raises due to stress then it would be wise of us to find ways to manage the stress and reduce cortisol.
The fight or flight response is the term typically used to describe when cortisol increases. One of cortisol functions is to supply energy (sugar) in the blood to provide muscles, brain and organs with fuel in times of distress. This occurs by breaking down our tissues like muscles, skin and organs into amino acids which is then converted by the liver into sugar (energy). This process is called gluconeogenesis.
Cortisol is believed to be made in the adrenals but some research suggests it can be produced in every cell.
Society in general is over worked, over stimulated, over trained, under rested and under nourished. These lifestyle habits in the first half of life can shorten the second half.
Every mental stressor is processed differently for each individual. Some people are very stress hardy while others can’t handle as much. A common phrase you hear is “that person has a lot on their plate.” This may be true but it’s also true that everyone has a different size plate.
High cortisol symptoms:
- Suppresses thyroid – stops the conversion from T4 to T3
- Estrogen increase
- Progesterone drops
- Body fat gain
- Decreased bone density
- Skin quality diminishes
- Testosterone drops
- Long term will affect Immune system
- Accelerated aging
Strategies to Reduce Cortisol
1. Optimal food. Malnutrition will affect cortisol levels. Lack of nutrients or enough carbs or calories will raise cortisol levels. Keeping blood sugar levels under control will help mitigate cortisol. Avoiding poly unsaturated fats will have universal benefits.
2. Exercise. Finding the right balance is key. Too intense or too frequent will be a problem, just as too little. More is not better contrary to the popular fitness culture. If you are already fighting high cortisol it would be wise to stay with minimal exercise and/or intensity. A walk in the woods or a stroll in the park may be the prescription required.
3. Sunlight (red and orange light). This will not only help circadian rhythms and sleep but also Vitamin D levels which is a cofactor with the protective hormones. The red light wavelength will penetrate the skin and improve cellular function (metabolism).
4. Laughter. Hard to feel stressed while laughing. Watch a funny show or just being around people who make you laugh more frequently. The opposite is also true. Try not to surround yourself with “doom and gloom” people who look at roses and see the thorns.
5. Regular sleep. This is when the body renews and repairs. If you are not getting 6-9 hours you may be in a more catabolic state. The regularity is important meaning going to bed and waking at similar times each day. Changes in the regularity can be clearly seen in the jet lag effect. This advice may sound like telling a drowning person to swim faster because high cortisol will cause sleep problems. I’ve covered improving sleep before so check that advice out and hopefully it will help.
7. Breathing exercises: There are many great breathing techniques out there such as the Buteyko method, or Jon Kabat Zinn. One of the main principles of these techniques is to increase carbon dioxide levels. Carbon dioxide will ‘push’ oxygen into the cells and have a calming and relaxing effect on the overall body.
8. Find a hobby. Having a hobby like knitting, painting, or comic collecting can be therapeutic. I’ll frequently hear how gardening feels almost meditative. Any activity that involves ones focus to stay on that one activity has a meditative property.
9. Yoga or Qigong. I’m not talking boot camp yoga where it’s high intensity and leaves you exhausted. Ideally, these sessions should leave you energized or slightly relaxed.
10. Herbs. Herbs such as ashwaganda and holy basil have been used to control anxiety. The herbs can be a nice option because of price and less side effects than prescribed drugs.
12. Gelatin. The amino acids of glycine, lysine and proline have an anti- inflammatory and anti-excitatory effect. This is helpful to combat tryptophan’s pro inflammatory and excitatory characteristics. Tryptophan is an abundant amino acid in the average diet.
It’s quite apparent we all have different abilities to handle stress. Some people will buckle under the slightest disturbance while others can handle anything thrown at them. The protective hormones of pregnenolone, DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) and testosterone are three hormones extremely important with a person’s ability to handle stress. Age and malnutrition will interfere with these hormones.
If these hormones are abundant you are very stress hardy and could be subjected to a cortisol pill and not be affected. These protective hormones are built from a functioning thyroid when enough cholesterol is present. if your thyroid and cholesterol is low you will turn any trace of cholesterol into adrenaline or cortisol. Basically, you can get over active adrenals from a low thyroid and a liver that is not producing enough cholesterol.
Having a hypo (underactive) thyroid with high cortisol can become a viscious cycle. The thyroid will slow because of stress which in return will increase estrogen. Estrogen then activates the adrenals and cortisol production.
When cortisol is high and testosterone is low depression may be the outcome. The body senses it is being destroyed by cortisol and slows down to almost hibernate. This can result in anxiety and depression.
If you knowingly have high cortisol try to incorporate some or all of these strategies above. A common theme with these suggestions is to take time for oneself. Spreading yourself thin will undoubtedly have an undesired effect. Optimizing your protective hormones will make you more resilient to handle whatever is thrown your in your direction.
Nothing erases unpleasant thoughts more effectively than conscious concentration on pleasant ones – Hans Seyle.
Keep me updated on your progress and let me know any other strategies you find effective.
Please feel free to share with someone you think could benefit.