Did you know that cortisol hormone levels can have a significant impact on your health and wellbeing by influencing both the way your other hormones e.g. oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, are produced and metabolised?
Cortisol levels are generally driven by our brain’s stress response as a part of the Hypothalamic/Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) axis.
Originally designed to be of short duration to give us a quick burst of adrenaline to escape from danger (lions and tigers and bears – oh my!), these days our stress response is often in a constant state of overload from work, family and lifestyle commitments.
This puts our HPA axis into overdrive and we find it harder to maintain quality sleep, get grumpy and tired, find that it gets harder to lose weight, are injured more easily when exercising or playing sports and find it harder to fight off or recover from illnesses and strenuous exercise. As time moves on the body can struggle to make enough cortisol hormones through its normal pathways, so it starts diverting the progesterone and testosterone precursor hormone to try and make cortisol in what is called the “pregnenolone steal”. This can be tragic for people trying to become pregnant as it can lead to fertility issues for both men and women. It can also lead to oestrogen dominance in women since there is a reduced amount of progesterone to balance out oestrogen putting us at risk of PMS, fibroids and oestrogen driven cancers. The extra hormonal complication for women is what makes it harder for us to lose weight.
And even the blokes can’t escape from this one! Cortisol mobilises fat stores in the body to become belly fat in both women and men. Constant stress also puts us at risk of systemic inflammation which increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancers. We have all heard of people burning out and many will have heard of adrenal fatigue syndrome that occurs as a result of too much stress.
Stress does not even need to be real to have an impact – just imagining or anticipating a situation is enough to elicit a stress response.
Here are some simple things that you can do about it before you get to the point that you cannot raise enough energy to even get out of bed:
Support restorative sleep:
- Meditation and mindfulness exercises are not just for hippies! These are effective ways of relaxing and calming the stressful thoughts of the day (it’s ok if you fall asleep during these). There are loads on YouTube.
- Normalise your circadian rhythm –
- Get early morning sun light on your face and skin as soon as you can when you wake up. It is best if you can go outside without sunglasses on.
- In the evenings keep lighting to a minimum after the sun has set by using low wattage bulbs that are warm white and not cold white. The aim is to reduce the amount of blue daylight type of light that your retinas receive after sunset. Some people find blue light blocking glasses helpful. I also recommend turning on the blue light reducing filters on your devices or to download an app like F.Lux.
- Turn your electronic devices off at least an hour before bed time – especially your work laptop – and then do something relaxing like have a hot bath or shower or read a fiction book or do some hand craft or artwork.
- Beware of the caffeine doom loop. Tired -> drink coffee or energy drink -> can’t sleep -> tired -> repeat. Some people would give up their first-born child before even thinking about reducing their coffee intake. Working out where you can get your next caffeine fix is just another stressor in people’s lives. Think of it as quality over quantity. Trade multiple cups during the day for one or two good ones before 2pm in the afternoon. If you cannot go cold turkey, then gradually mixing decaf with full octane coffee until it is all decaf can be helpful. At other times drink water or caffeine free fruit/herbal teas – at least 2 litres to help with staying hydrated.
Exercise with care:
This is a challenging one because fitness levels are such an individual thing. If you are already in a state of exhaustion, adrenal fatigue or burnout then a hard-out session at the gym or training for an iron man event is really the last thing you should be doing, particularly when cortisol production is under strain. When I have clients in this state I get them to stop all exercise, with the exception of going for a short, mindful, stroll 2 to 3 times a week or some simple stretching until they start to recover. If you are not at this stage then just be aware of how you feel after a workout session. If you are so tired that you cannot do much for the rest of the day, then you are likely to be over doing it.
- Cut the junk nutrients out of your diet – particularly highly processed and refined products that are high in sugar or unhealthy fats. Do this by swapping with healthier alternatives
Minimise Healthier alternatives
White bread Wholegrain bread
Chippies/crisps Mixed nuts (handful - preferably raw)
Sweets and lollies Fresh fruit (1-2 pieces per day)
Sweet chocolate Dark 85% or higher low sugar chocolate
Canola oil, cooking oil, non-dairy spreads Olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and butter
- When you cook, prepare enough food for more than one meal either for the next evening meal or left overs for lunch. If you have room in your freezer, bulk cook soups and stews to pull out when you need to. On the hunt for something easy on your way home? Instead of takeaways buy a cooked chicken or cold meats and salad from the supermarket.
- Keep some cans of fish and low GI crackers in your bag or drawer at work for lunches when you don’t bring it or don’t have time to go out and buy a healthy lunch. A bag of mixed nuts is also good to have on hand too, along with fruit.
Get out of the building!
- Go out outside for a walk during a break – walk mindfully i.e. try not to think about work or your other issues by keeping your focus on what is going on around you in that moment.
- Try to leave work on time and do not take work home with you whenever possible.
If hormonal issues are becoming a problem for you then a DUTCH test, which reports on how adrenal hormones (including cortisol and adrenaline) and reproductive hormones are being metabolised. It is a great way of seeing what is going on. You can then work on a targeted plan to getting your health and wellbeing back on track.
For more information on Adrenal Fatigue and Burn Out, Dr Lam and Dr Wilson are recognised specialists in this area. Both have published books and have some great resources on their websites:
Lam, M., & Dorine, L. (2012). Adrenal fatigue syndrome. Loma Linda, FA: Adrenal Institute Press. https://www.drlam.com/
Wilson, J. (2001). Adrenal fatigue: The 21st century stress syndrome. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications https://adrenalfatigue.org/
As always, this is general information and not to be taken as direct advice. For a more personalised approach, either click the “Book Now” button to book a consultation with me or contact your local registered Naturopath or other Health and Wellness professional.
1. Cash, E., et al., Mindfulness meditation alleviates fibromyalgia symptoms in women: Results of a randomized clinical trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2015. 49(3): p. 319-330.
2. Mitchell, M. and G. Heads, Staying Well: A Follow Up of a 5-Week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme for a Range of Psychological Issues. Community Mental Health Journal, 2015. 51(8): p. 897-902.
3. Omidi, A. and F. Zargar, Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Pain Severity and Mindful Awareness in Patients With Tension Headache: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. Nursing & Midwifery Studies, 2014. 3(3): p. 1-5.
4. Kabat-Zinn, J., Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Revised ed. 2013, New York, NY: Bantam Books.