Here are a few simple things you can start implementing in your daily routine to bring down elevated cortisol levels, and help carve the way for a healthier lifestyle.
Stress wreaks havoc on the mind and the body, perhaps more seriously than many people consider. Psychology directly affects biology, as the mind has a powerful way of exerting a strong influence over the body’s internal environment in ways that we have yet to fully understand. However, a basic glimpse into the process looks like this: the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotional-processing) sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (the command center of the brain) when the body undergoes any type of mental or physical stress. The sympathetic nervous system is then activated by the hypothalamus as it sends signals through autonomic nerves to the body’s adrenal glands. The adrenals then pump several hormones into the bloodstream, including adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is a key player in the stress response. Although a stress-induced increase in cortisol secretion can be a benefit in the short term, excessive and prolonged cortisol levels in the body serve as a recipe for disease.
As someone with elevated cortisol levels, I’m acutely aware of the physical (and mental) symptoms that accompany these elevated levels. Such symptoms include brain fog, insomnia, anxiety, joint pain, adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalances, immune system suppression, and perhaps worst of all – inflammation within the body. Researchers have found that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response; in other words, immune system cells, when under stress, essentially become unable to respond to hormonal control (the cortisol’s regulatory effect). Inflammation is not always bad, particularly in response to an infection or an injury, however chronic inflammation has been known to cause a variety of ailments including heart disease, cancer (also see How Cancer Feeds Off of Stress), and depression. Furthermore, the adrenal glands can only pump so much adrenaline and cortisol before they become exhausted, leading to a condition called adrenal fatigue. My own personal symptoms of adrenal fatigue include having difficulty falling asleep, and experiencing brain fog as well as hormonal imbalances.
I would spend hours on the computer doing research, reading scientific studies along with blog posts, as well as picking the brains of the many endocrinologists and integrative practitioners I was sent to see. To date, I have begun to implement the following practices into my daily routine to help bring down my cortisol levels & decrease my risk for developing inflammation-related diseases. These practices include:
- Meditation – Given that meditation has been proven most effective in regulating the body’s stress response, I try to meditate between 5 and 10 minutes each day, oftentimes right before I go to sleep. Meditation alters the brain’s plasticity and essentially enables it to stop processing the large amounts of information it does on a daily basis. Meditation also promotes neurogenesis (the process by which new neurons are formed) within the hippocampus region of the brain, also helping to regulate anxiety.
- Adaptogen Herbs – An adaptogen is a unique class of healing plants that help to protect, restore, and balance hormones in the body. They help the body “adapt” to biological and psychological stress through promoting hormonal balance. Ashwaganda, holy basil, and rhodiola are three of my favorite adaptogen herbs, also serving to reduce anxiety, decrease c-reactive protein levels (a blood test marker for inflammation), improve memory formation, and lower cortisol levels. For example, studies have shown that ashwaganda actually decreased cortisol levels by 14.5-27.9% in healthy but stressed individuals.
- Diet – Switching to a dairy & gluten free diet has had a positive improvement on not only my cortisol levels, but my overall health. While 1% of the population has Celiac disease, one in 30 people have a gluten sensitivity (I happen to be one of those 30). Those with gluten sensitivities fan the flames for inflammation every time they eat gluten. As a result, the body’s immune system becomes stressed, and attacks the body’s own tissues rather than the foreign invaders (ultimately leading to immune disorders). Dairy is also highly inflammatory (second to gluten) because it often contains high levels of inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids and oftentimes a protein called A1 casein—which triggers pro-inflammatory responses within the body. I’ve replaced dairy with alternatives such as almond milk, cashew milk, and even hemp milk. These alternatives are great options not only because they’re dairy free and taste great, but also because they often have a lower sugar content as well.
- Exercise, but not too much – In high school, I would run an average of 70-80 miles per week. Intense cardio exercise has been shown to elevate cortisol levels, which also has a direct effect on impairing insulin sensitivity (as stress has been shown to lead to insulin-resistance, subsequently increasing the risk for developing diabetes). Overtraining has also been shown to have harmful effects on the immune system, as well as increasing your risk for sleep disturbances, depression, and memory impairment. Ironically, what was meant to be a stress outlet served to harm my body even more. In lieu of all these findings, I’ve drastically changed my exercise regime. I no longer run more than 3 miles at a time, and take at least 2 or 3 rest days a week. I’ve also tried to focus on more moderate exercising, such as brisk walking, strength training, and yoga. As a result, I’ve noticed a positive change in my symptoms, encouraging me to build on my mindset of working with my body rather than against it.
- Essential oils have been shown to help to reduce levels of cortisol in the body, they are often able to help with feelings of angst, anxiety, and depression. For example, a study published in the Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that the use of essential oils helped to reduce anxiety and depression scales in postpartum women, while another 2017 study revealed that after four weeks of essential oil use, a significant reduction in negative emotions including anxiety, stress, & depression were observed in the intervention group. The most commonly used essential oils that promote emotional well-being are lavender, orange, rose, and frankincense. Our personal favorite brand is Rocky Mountain Oils, which only sells 100% pure and authentic essential oils. They even offer a Certfied USDA Organic line, in which all of their oils are sourced from organic practices in addition to passing extensive third-party testing.
I encourage you to start implementing some of these practices in your daily routine and watch how your symptoms start to disappear.