Dangers of High Cortisol Levels and Tips to Keep It in Check
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is made in your adrenal glands. Most cells of our body have cortisol receptors which serve to uptake the hormone for a variety of functions, including blood sugar and metabolism regulation, reducing inflammation, and memory formulation. These are all very necessary body processes, but as you can imagine, too much of this hormone can wreak serious havoc on your body and comes with a host of unwanted symptoms. Read on to learn a bit more about cortisol and learn some simple ways to manage your levels for optimum health.
Symptoms of High Cortisol
High cortisol can cause many symptoms in your body. The most common are weight gain, generally around the midsection and upper back, as well as around the face. Yay! ☹ Just what we all want, right? Acne is another unfortunate side effect that many people suffer from just when we thought for sure we had left that teenage problem far behind! Added on to the rounder face and that’s just not a look I am going for, to be honest.
I can usually tell when I am suffering from high cortisol because one of my first signs is difficulty concentrating. You know, where you hear the same thing over and over and still can’t make sense of what was said? That could be “old-timers” but it is likely just high cortisol levels messing with you. Brain Fog is real and it is no fun!!!!
Other common symptoms are thinning skin and a flushed face – to go with that weight gain and acne. That’s like the quadruple punch in the face, am I right? Then throw in some severe fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, easy bruising, slowed healing, and irritability and we are a COMPLETE MESS. And let’s be honest, I’m not sure the irritability is so much a symptom in and of itself so much as the inevitable response to all the other freaking symptoms!!! Geesh!
What Are the Main Contributors to High Cortisol?
Both your hormones and your nerves send signals when you are stressed. This causes your adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol kick off the flight-or-fight response and increase your heart rate and your energy to get your body ready for a dangerous or harmful situation that needs dealt with. Cortisol also has the extra job of limiting functions not necessary to fight-or-flight. Then your hormones will return to their normal levels after the danger has passed. This is all a good thing, except….
When you are under constant stress and the response doesn’t turn off. Then the long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones start to create problems for your body. Problems like obesity, anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
Medication Side Effects
Many medications can increase cortisol levels. Corticosteroid medications used to treat asthma, arthritis, certain cancers, and other conditions can cause high cortisol levels when taken in higher dosages or over long periods of time. This includes medications likes prednisone and cortisone which are commonly prescribed. Estrogen replacement therapy and pregnancy are two other causes of increased cortisol levels. Of course, you should never stop a prescribed medication without speaking to your doctor, but knowing the side effects can be helpful when having the conversation.
Tips to Reduce Cortisol Levels
Get Enough Sleep
Over time, sleep deprivation causes increased cortisol levels. Night shift workers are at increased risk for high cortisol (). Insomnia and interruptions to sleep can also increase levels and disrupt daily hormone patterns (, , ).
Intense exercise increases cortisol shortly after exercise in the short-term, but decrease in the nighttime. Mild or moderate exercise at 40-60% of maximum effort, however, does not increase cortisol in the short-term, like intense exercise, and it still leads to lower levels at night (, ).
Eat Healthy Foods
It goes without saying, eating healthy foods is good for you. There doesn’t seem to be an issue out there that a good diet of whole foods won’t help, and cortisol levels is no exception. A diet full of fruits and vegetables is good for you. But guess what? Studies even show that dark chocolate may be helpful (, ) as well. And dark chocolate lovers rejoiced!
Dehydration can also increase cortisol levels, so drink up. I find that I tend to not drink enough water – come on – it’s boring. I’ve found a great water additive that I love and that is good for you, too.
There are several good nutritional supplements that can help with maintaining healthy cortisol levels.
A good fish oil supplement can be a great way to reduce cortisol levels in response to stress (, ).
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics are friendly, symbiotic bacteria found in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi, as well as in nutritional supplements. Prebiotics, such as soluble fiber, provide food for these bacteria. Both probiotics and prebiotics help reduce cortisol (). The issue is often the levels in the foods or supplements are not high enough to be measurably helpful. Choosing a good supplement is therefore very important, otherwise, you are just throwing money down the drain…or toilet if we are honest. So you have to be able to trust the source.
There are supplements on the market that are specially formulated to work with the body to reduce cortisol levels. One I trust is a combination of pregnenolone, lipids, black cohosh, DHEA, clary sage, and high-quality essential oils known to help the body manage cortisol levels. When I am feeling the effects of stress, I add this supplement to my daily supplement regimen for about 8 weeks and the brain fog, bloating, and tiredness melt away.
Many essential oils have a positive effect on cortisol levels. Researchers found that the inhalation of lavender, ylang ylang, marjoram, and neroli decreased blood pressure and salivary cortisol levels (). Other oils such as basil, bergamot, rosemary, and orange are also helpful. The important thing to note in the study linked above is that participants who smelled artificial fragrance had no improvement. So, trusting your oil source is important, as many oils on the market are actually artificial synthetics! Read below for a free roller bottle blend.
Cortisol and Stress Reducing Diffuser Blend
Combine the following oils in a cold-water ultrasonic diffuser for stress relief:
4 drops Lavender
3 drops Ylang Ylang
2 drops Marjoram
1 drop Neroli
As you can see, maintaining healthy cortisol levels is important and there are some simple steps such as getting more sleep, moderate exercise, eating healthy, and nutritional supplementation that can assist you in keeping your cortisol levels in check.
Remember what I said about trusting the source when we talked about probiotics and essential oils? It’s true. Not all supplements are created equal and not all essential oils on the market are even made from plants. Just like I am sure you would rather get your produce from a local source where you can trust the process as opposed to vegetables that were grown on industrial farms with chemicals and picked too early and shipped too far, right? Lucky for you, I have a source I trust for oils, supplements, and so much more – one where I can even tour the farm and speak to the workers. How cool is that? Want to learn more? Contact Me.
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Until next time - Keep on Keepin' It Real - I know I will. ~ Cathryn