Cortisol is a hormone made by our adrenal glands. It impacts other hormones like progesterone and thyroid function. A key hormone that plays a vital role in our stress levels. Read on to learn about Cortisol and Women’s Hormone Balance
What is cortisol?
The primary stress hormone. It helps the body deal with stressful situations and has many important functions in the body other than stress response such as regulating the sleep cycle and metabolism of glucose. Although typically regarded as a harmful hormone, cortisol actually has anti-inflammatory and beneficial properties. However, it is when cortisol is chronically elevated that it can become harmful to our health.
What produces it and when?
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and is released in response to events like waking up, low blood sugar events, and intense exercise. Cortisol fluctuates throughout the day with our circadian rhythm. Cortisol is higher in the morning, typically peaking between 30 and 45 minutes post-awakening and falls throughout the day. Cortisol secretion is pulsatile with bursts approximately every hour. It is thought to prepare our bodies to deal with the upcoming demands of the day.
Signs of chronically high cortisol levels
- Weight gain, especially in the mid-section area
- Hair loss
- Long cycles and low progesterone
- Low thyroid function
- Trouble sleeping and anxiety
- Mood swings
Foods that help reduce cortisol
In recent years, extreme carbohydrate restriction and fasting windows have gained popularity. There is research highlighting the benefit of these dietary practices in some populations. However, these practices also cause elevated cortisol levels. Research supports that carbohydrates and regular eating intervals help lower cortisol levels. Thus, for someone experiencing high cortisol levels, strategically including quality carbohydrates is a helpful dietary strategy. The foods listed below are some of those food sources.
1- Plant starches like legumes and root vegetables are rich in minerals, fiber, and carbohydrates which help lower cortisol. Some examples include beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, chickpeas and black beans.
2- Citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C and electrolytes. Vitamin C is utilized by the adrenal glands in the production of cortisol. When they don’t have enough of this vitamin, the adrenals release more cortisol. This is why it is crucial to make vitamin C rich foods part of your daily diet. Some examples include oranges, lemons, grapefruit, kiwi, guavas and bell peppers.
3- Raw nuts and seeds like walnuts and pumpkin seeds are rich in magnesium and selenium which aid in metabolizing cortisol and supporting nervous system health.
4- Dark chocolate is rich in polyphenols and magnesium. Polyphenols help provide a calming effect to our nervous system and slow down the production of cortisol.
Supplements/herbs that help reduce stress
The following supplements can further support the balance of cortisol.
- Magnesium: a mineral that helps reduces inflammation, metabolizes cortisol, and relaxes the body and mind.
- L-theanine: an amino acid that balances serotonin and dopamine, which influence mood, sleep, and cortisol, helping the body deal with stress.
- Skullcap: an adaptogenic herb that is great at balancing hormones in the body to help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Holy basil: an adaptogenic herb that contains phytochemical compounds that have been found to reduce cortisol levels.
- Rhodiola: an adaptogenic herb that contains a phytochemical known as salidroside, which helps reduce cortisol levels.
- Chamomile: an adaptogenic herb that has been shown to balance mood and decrease cortisol levels.
Avoid these to reduce cortisol
If you are experiencing high cortisol levels, reducing the exposure of these sources within your lifestyle may be helpful. These are often inflammatory and cause stress on the body, making cortisol levels rise.
- Alcohol (limit intake to at least 2 hours before bed so that sleep is not impacted)
- Caffeine (we recommend limiting caffeine to <150 mg/day and only with food)
- Naked carbs (carbohydrate-rich foods that are consumed alone. Ensure all meals and snacks are balanced.)
- Electronics before bed (the blue light can disrupt the circadian rhythm and impact your diurnal cortisol.)
Studies have shown that levels of cortisol after consuming high amounts of caffeine and/or alcohol are similar to the cortisol levels of someone experiencing acute stress.
Exposure to blue wavelength light from electronic devices makes our brain more alert and inhibits the production of melatonin, which leads to an increase in cortisol.
Do you suspect you have high cortisol? Below is an example of the DUTCH test we offer to measure levels of cortisol.
If you believe that cortisol disruption could be impacting your health, we recommend the at-home DUTCH hormone test. When compared to testing hormones in your blood, the DUTCH test is superior because of its ability to test free cortisol throughout the day in addition to the testing of hormone metabolites (how your body is metabolizing the hormones you are making). Cortisol testing is most accurate when done through saliva or urine. The results of this test can help you better understand your symptoms, as well as how to manage them through diet, lifestyle and supplements.
Test with us and we can work together to provide a unique individualization of your nutrition, exercise and lifestyle program. You can learn more about the DUTCH test and how we integrate it into treatment here: DUTCH Test Package
Written by: Mariana Lozano
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