Continuing our theme on Stress and Your Health, today I want to dive deeper into the world of adrenal hormones, specifically cortisol. Last week in my post on Adaptogens to Protect Against Stress I discussed how the body responds to stress via a hardwired physiological stress response system starting in our adrenal glands. Your body has perfectly evolved to handle an acute stress and quickly recover, the problem however lies in chronic, unrelenting stress.
Problems with Elevated Cortisol
Adrenaline and cortisol are the two hormones initially secreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress. They work together to get us through the stress and safely out the other end by increasing glucose for energy and increasing blood pressure to help us "get away". They also stimulate the immune system and the hormone insulin to help our bodies "clean up" once the stress is gone. Cortisol is also released at other times, like when we wake up in the morning or while exercising. However, when cortisol is chronically elevated, usually because of chronic stress continually stimulating the above cascade, the problems can be far-reaching with negative effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
Blood Sugar Issues
As described above, under stressful situations cortisol provides the body with glucose to give us energy to get away from the danger. During the immediate stress, cortisol suppresses insulin production so the glucose will continue to be available for energy. Only once the stress is gone does cortisol decrease and allow insulin to come in and clean up the excess glucose that wasn't used up by the muscles. So now imagine that you are constantly under stress with glucose constantly being pumped out and not enough insulin to store it away. A situation of chronically elevated blood sugars arise, which sets the stage nicely for pre-diabetes and eventually even Type 2 Diabetes.
When blood glucose is elevated but insulin is being suppressed the cells are actually not getting the glucose and being fed. This leads to increased hunger, appetite, and consequently overeating to compensate for the missing glucose. Once the stress resolves all of the extra glucose that wasn't used for energy is now stored in fat cells. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake, especially in women (study).
Immune System Weakening
Cortisol functions to initially lower inflammation in the body, which is good, but over time these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system. Chronic inflammation (from diet, lifestyle, or stress) cause cortisol to remain high, which wreaks havoc on the immune system. Suppressed immunity makes us more at risk for colds, flu, infections, cancer, even food sensitivities/allergies.
As you can probably guess, when the body is in a state of "fight-or-flight" all our energy is being diverted away from unnecessary actions, like digestion. So when we then eat on top of a stressed-out system we end up with indigestion, malabsorption, and gut irritation. Ulcers, IBS, Colitis all flare-up during times of stress.
Cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure helping us to "escape" the danger. Over time, this can lead to vessel damage and plaque build-up increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. This may explain why stressed-out Type A personalities are more at risk for heart disease than the more relaxed Type B personalities (study).
Cortisol is produced by the same pathway in our adrenals that is responsible for the production of our sex hormones. When under chronic stress, cortisol is given priority, which can lead to hormonal imbalances, disruption of normal ovulation and menstruation, and even erectile dysfunction.
Using Diet & Lifestyle to Tame Cortisol
Okay. So if you've gotten this far, clearly you see why chronically elevated cortisol is a problem. Let's shift the focus to what we can do to lower cortisol and help to reverse some of the issues described above.
Before we add in anything else we have to deal with the causes of the stress. Otherwise we're simply covering the issue with band-aids rather than getting to the root of the problem. In my blog post on Living Mindfully with Stress I outline steps you can take to identify your stressors, make a plan to address what you can, and add in stress management strategies to build your resilience and help you better manage stress in your life.
An Anti-Inflammatory Diet is essential in improving the nutrient density of the food you're eating while decreasing sources of inflammation. Bringing in colorful low glycemic plants with good quality protein and healthy fats will help your body lower cortisol levels while nourishing your adrenal glands. Here is a list of some specific foods that will be helpful:
- Grass-fed animal protein and plant-based proteins
- Healthy Fats, especially Omega-3 fats (fish, walnuts, flax, chia, hemp)
- Magnesium rich foods like spinach, kale, and other dark green leafy veggies
- Vitamin C rich foods like citrus, tomatoes, bell peppers, and berries
- Phosphatidylserine rich foods like beans, lentils, and barley
There are also certain foods that should be limited or even avoided in order to make the biggest impact on your cortisol levels. The following list of foods have all been shown to increase inflammation in the body and/or tax the adrenal glands.
- sugar and refined carbohydrates (high glycemic foods)
- hydrogenated, trans, or fried fats
- processed foods with vegetable oils high in omega-6s (read more about fats)
- poor quality, commercially produced animal foods
Although regular daily exercise is incredibly important for all factors of your health, intense exercise can actually increase your cortisol levels. I recommend keeping your exercise to more gentle, moderate forms like walking, yoga, tai chi, etc. Save the cross-fit, marathon, or triathalon trainings for once you're cortisol levels are back in a normal range and the rest of the stressors in your life have been better managed.
There are specific foods, herbs, nutrients, etc that can help to lower cortisol and support your adrenal glands. Many of them were outlined for you in my blog post on Adaptogens. Two adaptogenic herbs that I routinely recommend starting with are Holy Basil (Tulsi) and Rhodiola. Tulsi can easily be taken as a tea and Rhodiola can be taken as a tincture or in tablet or capsule form. Dark chocolate (>70%) is another medicinal food that may be helpful in lowering cortisol levels; 1-2 squares a day.
Your adrenal glands will continue to pump out cortisol for a very long time during prolonged periods of stress but it's important to point out that eventually your adrenals will grow tired and will no longer be able to keep up with the demand. This is usually the point where fatigue and exhaustion start to take over. The pendulum shifts and now the issue becomes adrenal fatigue and dangerously low cortisol levels. There are very simple lab tests that can be done to assess your cortisol levels and adrenal function. Both blood and saliva tests are important to pursue. If you are at all concerned that you might be suffering from long-term elevated cortisol and/or adrenal fatigue I encourage you to reach out to me for a Free Consult. We can assess what might be going on for you and pursue testing to help identify your best repair protocol.