Stress is something that’s become unavoidable in our increasingly hectic lives, but what you can control is how your mind and body respond to it. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with cortisol, but we’re going to start with a quick recap for anyone who isn’t in the loop.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s released by your adrenal glands and is super important for helping your body to deal with stressful situations and enabling us to think and act quickly when threatened. When you find yourself under various types of stress, your brain will respond by triggering the release of cortisol to help you to deal with it. The more stressed you are, the more cortisol your body will release.
Ultimately, this isn’t a bad thing. Cortisol is activated to help rather than hinder you. It actually keeps you alive. But like most things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Our bodies were never meant to be under constant stress, so your cortisol levels should fall just as quickly once the stress trigger is gone. However, many people in today’s society find themselves under a serious amount of stress on a consistent basis, which means cortisol levels never get a chance to settle down.
When our systems begin to get flooded with cortisol we start to experience symptoms associated with hormone overload — such as weight gain (particularly around the stomach which is the most dangerous place for fat storage), fatigue, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar, which can contribute to the onset of diabetes.
Luckily, there are a number of ways to reduce your cortisol levels by making some simple adjustments to your diet and lifestyle. So let’s have a look.
1. Get Sufficient Amounts of Sleep
Studies have shown that when you go to sleep, how long you sleep for, and the quality of your sleep, are all factors that will contribute to your levels of cortisol. Sleep deprivation over an extended period of time results in increased cortisol levels and this has been proven on a study of shift workers which found that cortisol is higher in people who sleep during the day rather than at night time. Alternating shift times tend to have the same result and a lot of this may be related to the insomnia that often co-occurs with overnight shift work. Insomnia itself, whatever the cause, can lead to increased cortisol levels for up to 24 hours.
However, there are ways to mitigate this issue and improve your sleep patterns:
- Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
- Exercise as much as possible when you’re up and about.
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep each night to keep your cortisol under control.
- Try to stick to a regular bedtime — regardless of what time of the day it is.
- Give yourself time to wind down before bedtime by limiting your exposure to bright light, shutting off your computer / TV screens, and turning off or silencing that mobile!
- Try napping during the day if you can’t get sufficient sleep at nighttime.
As noted, exercise is great for decreasing cortisol but more specifically at night. Intense exercising will increase your cortisol in the short-term, i.e. the period directly after exercise, however it will decrease as the day goes on. This short-term spike is actually helpful in completing your workout and it gives you the extra energy and push you need. It also tends to decrease over time as you become more accustomed to your exercise routine (although, of course, once you change it up you’ll find the spike occurring again).
In comparison, milder and moderate exercise (about 50% of your maximum intensity) will not increase cortisol at all in the short term and your levels will still lower when night time rolls around.
3. Improve your Awareness of Unhelpful Thinking Patterns
Your thoughts have a significant impact on the amount of cortisol produced by your body. One study of 122 people found that reliving (writing about) stressful experiences led to an increase in cortisol over a period of one month. In contrast, the study found that taking note of positive experiences or daily plans did not awaken the same stress response.
Meditation and mindfulness activities are excellent strategies for helping people to become more self-aware and in control of the thoughts and anxiety that provoke this stress response. By becoming more aware of how you process your daily thoughts, and incorporating some breathing techniques, you can become an observer rather than a participant by being to recognize and manage stress before it takes hold. This is one of the first key steps to dealing with stress and taking control of your cortisol levels.
4. Take Time to Relax
There are many ways to add some daily relaxation into your routine but the main thing is to schedule it and stick to it. It’s very easy to let other things take precedence over your own self-care but you must remember that your health is your absolute priority in all instances, regardless of what’s happening in your life.
One specific study in the Journal of Music Therapy showed that simply listening to music can reduce stress-related increases in cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. So why not go for a walk with your earphones in and kill two birds with one stone? Other great relaxation techniques include going for a massage or simply having a nice long soak in a warm tub.
5. Maintain a Healthy Diet
Sugar is a massive culprit for increased cortisol on a long-term basis, however it can also reduce cortisol in the short-term if consumed during a period of stress – which is why many of us aim for the sweet section as comfort food when we’re feeling under pressure.
Unfortunately, this initial reaction can lead to a dependency on sugar which can result in cortisol levels actually rising and staying elevated for much longer than is recommended. The best foods for keeping your cortisol levels under control are dark chocolate, tea, most fruits, probiotics — which you’ll find in yogurt or can be added as a supplement, and water.
You Need Cortisol to Survive, But You Don’t Need so Much
Cortisol is not the enemy and it is actually designed to protect your body rather than cause it any damage. By following these tips to lower cortisol levels, you can ensure that cortisol spikes only occur when it’s absolutely necessary and avoid the symptoms associated with chronic levels of high cortisol in your system.
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