Looking after ourselves is essential to maintaining a healthy body and mind. However, I’ve found that so many factors can contribute to how I feel and it’s not just about what I eat and drink. There are lots of lifestyle habits that play a part in this, such as getting enough sleep, being hydrated, and exercising. For example, my ballet blast programme not only aims to sculpt your body but increase your flexibility, boost your mood, and improve your energy levels. Yet sometimes when I find myself too busy and my sleep schedule suffers or I don’t drink enough water, it starts to take its toll on my body. This can lead to stress which sometimes causes your body to release too many hormones, such as cortisol. Here we take a look at how our cortisol levels can impact our body and how to reduce them naturally.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands (located on top of your kidneys) that’s important for maintaining several body functions, such as your immune system, nervous system, and stress responses. In fact, cortisol is well known for fueling your body’s natural fight-or-flight response when dealing with stress — acting as your natural alarm system to send signals to your body to combat stress. A healthy level of cortisol helps regulate your metabolism, reduce inflammation, and maintain blood sugar levels, with your cortisol levels generally higher in the morning and lowest at midnight. For example, normal cortisol ranges from 10 to 20 micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dL) between 6-8am and three to 10 mcg/dL at 4pm. However, when you experience stress, your levels tend to rise, which can cause issues.
The impact of stress on the body
Stress naturally triggers signals in your body which cause the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline, increasing your heart rate and energy levels as part of the fight-or-flight response. And while small doses of cortisol can heighten memory, strengthen the immune system, and lower pain sensitivity, constant stress is responsible for too much cortisol in your body.
The hormone naturally triggers glucose to enter the body where it provides immediate energy to help overcome stress. However, too much can increase blood sugar levels and potentially lead to type two diabetes. High cortisol symptoms include tiredness, weight gain, impaired function, and infections, while in rare cases, you may develop Cushing’s Syndrome which is the result of prolonged high cortisol. Long-term overexposure to the hormone can also impact your digestive system. For instance, your digestive tract may be unable to digest or absorb food well which could be problematic over a period of time. This can lead to constipation and cause you to develop gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease).
If your levels are too high, there are ways to reduce it naturally to help with your health, but if your cortisol levels are too low this can cause problems for you too. For example, symptoms like weight loss, muscle and joint pain, low blood pressure, and nausea indicate low levels. This can develop into Addison’s Disease when there’s not enough cortisol in your body. Some tell-tale signs of an imbalance include feeling sluggish in the morning, strong food cravings, acne, depression, and headaches.
How to naturally reduce cortisol levels
Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation can increase your cortisol levels, as the hormone plays a critical role in your sleep-wake cycle. When this is thrown off balance, it changes your cortisol levels at the wrong times meaning you may experience insomnia, leading to fragmented sleep and getting less sleep overall. Therefore, how much shut-eye you get and the quality of it makes a big impact, and it’s recommended you get at least seven hours of sleep a night.
Eat a healthy diet
What you eat influences your cortisol levels too. For example, sugar is a trigger for cortisol release so regular intake can keep levels high. You should aim for a balanced diet of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to help maintain stable blood sugars. Some foods that will benefit your cortisol levels include dark chocolate, bananas, and pears, as well as probiotics like miso, kimchi, and yoghurt. I have a few recipes you can try out to incorporate these foods, including chocolate banana bread, miso roasted aubergine, and pear & berry protein smoothie.
Regular exercise is not only important for maintaining your health and fitness, but managing cortisol levels too. For example, high intensity exercise, such as endurance sessions, for long periods of time can increase your cortisol levels, while short bursts of activities like sprints, HIIT, and weight training don’t cause an increase at all.
Lower stress levels
Reducing stress in your life will naturally lower your cortisol levels. Try removing yourself from any stressful situations and identify what triggers your stress as this will help you manage how you feel and respond. You can also find new ways to relax, such as journaling, going for a walk, and deep breathing. The latter is a useful technique as the vagus nerve that runs from your brain to your abdomen sends signals to your nervous system to lower your heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol during deep breaths, helping to reduce symptoms of stress.
Nurture fun, healthy relationships
It’s hard to feel stressed about life when you’re having a good time with friends and family! Laughing is actually very good for you, lowering cortisol levels, while feeling happy and having a positive outlook naturally reduces how stressed you feel. Whether this is going out for a meal, watching a film or any other activity you enjoy, doing it with other people will immediately boost your mood.