Cortisol: The Goldilocks Hormone

STRESS. It’s something we all experience, to one degree or another. The effects of stress shouldn’t be taken lightly. Aside from its effects on your productivity, stress can lead to illness, anxiety, weight gain, depletion of energy, and even loss of sleep. We can’t avoid stress entirely, so what can we do to manage our stress?

Let’s talk about cortisol

Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by our adrenal glands, which look like two little hats sitting on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is released as part of the sympathetic nervous system “fight-or-flight” reflex. When this occurs, it decreases less critical functions like digestion, reproduction, and immune function to focus on fighting immediate physical threat. This function of cortisol is meant to be immediate and momentary, enough to survive a physical challenge. This was effective for our human ancestors hunted by prehistoric beasts, but it is less ideal in modern times when stress can be psychological and constant.

Positive role of cortisol

Cortisol plays a vital physiological role. When functioning optimally, we get a boost of cortisol when we first wake up in the morning, which adequately raises our blood pressure and allows us to get out of bed and start our day. At night, cortisol levels decrease, allowing for a deep and restful sleep. Under times of stress, cortisol raises plasma glucose levels and provides our body with the energy it needs to face bodily attacks from injury, illness or infection. It also has potent anti-inflammatory effects to reduce irritation and pain.

The negative effects of too much cortisol

Too much cortisol for an extended period of time can lead to serious health consequences. High cortisol levels can result in reduced protein synthesis and conversion of protein to glucose, increased abdominal fat, insulin resistance, increased cholesterol and blood pressure, altered brain chemistry causing depression and anxiety, and osteoporosis. It can also suppress levels of growth hormone and sex hormones, which can lead to reduced libido and fertility. If long term, extended periods of stress and elevated cortisol are not addressed, eventually our adrenal glands become overly exhausted and can’t produce enough cortisol (or other necessary hormones) to maintain normal physiological function.

Maintenance of our health and wellbeing

The moderation of cortisol levels is important for our health. Like Goldilocks we don’t want too much or too little cortisol, but rather we feel great when it is JUST RIGHT. Here are some tips on how to find balance and manage stress in our lives:

  • Rest - Make sure to get plenty of rest. Aim for a solid 8 hours of sleep per night, practice good sleep hygiene, and adopt a regular bedtime routine. In addition, mediation and yoga for even 15 minutes a day can help you find moments of calm.  

  • Healthy diet - At DHH, we recommend an anti-inflammatory diet of simple, cooked meals comprised of a wide variety of organic whole foods. Eat a colorful variety of vegetables and fruits, healthy fats such as avocado, coconut, ghee and olive oil, nuts and seeds, and healthy protein such as pasture raised meat, eggs and wild caught fish.

  • Avoid those crutches: refined sugar, processed foods, excess alcohol and caffeine, which can disrupt healthy cortisol signaling and negatively affect mood, sleep and energy. Good news: we’ve got a better way for you to boost energy and feel good.

  • Exercise - 30 minutes of light exercise gets the blood moving and can help reduce cortisol levels. (However, avoid intense exercise in cases of low cortisol or adrenal fatigue.)

  • Supplements - Consider supplements for adrenal support with the help of a licensed herbalist. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help your body adapt to any influence or stressor. They help to balance, restore, and protect the body. Examples of adaptogenic herbs are: astragalus root (huang qi), cordyceps (dong chong xia cao), reishi (ling zhi), ginseng, ashwagandha, and holy basil.

  • See your acupuncturist - Come visit us at DHH to learn more about the symptoms of high vs. low cortisol and the Chinese Medicine perspective pertaining to stress and cortisol. We can also order lab testing to determine if your adrenals need support. Acupuncture in conjunction with herbs/supplements, diet and lifestyle choices can help you manage stress. Our approach takes into account your individual physical, mental, and lifestyle needs to help you find your balance.