The Stress-Cortisol Connection

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The Stress-Cortisol Connection
Maybe you know cortisol as the ‘stress hormone.’ While cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands during times of high stress or anxiety and many of us associate it with contributing to unsightly belly fat, it is still a necessary hormone for our survival. When cortisol production occurs correctly, it keeps us motivated and helps us remain alert and responsive to our environment so we can avoid potentially life threatening situations. It is only when high cortisol production becomes chronic that it is problematic and can contribute to certain health problems including adrenal fatigue, irritability, hormonal imbalances and weight gain.

Cortisol release follows a natural 24-hour rhythm with the highest amount at 6 a.m., tapering off gradually during the day and reaching the lowest point around midnight. Thus, rising cortisol in the morning turns on your energy activation for the day.

Cortisol also helps to provide anti-inflammatory lubrication and reduces wear and tear on your body. When stress increases, a healthy adrenal system releases cortisol to help protect your body. When the specific stress ends, the added demand on the body is reduced and your cortisol level should return to its normal baseline level within an hour.

If you are under ongoing stress, your adrenals work overtime to produce cortisol to protect your body from the high stress. If your body can’t keep up, or if you don’t have proper nutrients to maintain adrenal health, then adrenal fatigue and exhaustion can begin. The first signs of adrenal fatigue are poor stress tolerance, easy fatigue, irritability, and unstable mood. Not being able to make it through the morning without your energy crashing out is a sure sign of adrenal fatigue.

The good news is that there are many things you can do to regulate cortisol levels and support your adrenal glands. Cortisol levels can successfully be managed by changing to a wholefoods, anti-inflammatory diet. Some of the foods which contribute to increased inflammation and cortisol include excess sugar, caffeine, alcohol and trans fats. Instead, focus on eating high quality fats, protein and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Managing stress levels through regular exercise of 30-60 minutes most days of the week is also beneficial to keeping cortisol levels in check. Just be sure to avoid overtraining and overexerting yourself as this can cause excess levels of cortisol to be produced. Other stress management practices such as breathing techniques and spending time outdoors in nature can be helpful as well.

Last, but certainly not least, certain nutrients including magnesium, pantethine, vitamin C, and coenzyme B vitamins are critical to help stabilize your adrenals, improve stress tolerance, and protect you from longer-term adrenal fatigue. When you are under more stress, your body rapidly uses these nutrients and supplementation can be especially helpful. Additionally, adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola, holy basil, eleuthero and cordyceps help your adrenals to better adapt to stressors and can help you to maintain mental focus and composure when under stress.

So if you are looking at cortisol as the dreaded ‘stress hormone,’ it’s probably time to make some lifestyle changes. By incorporating some of the above strategies you can begin to get cortisol back into its normal, beneficial 24-hour rhythm and out of the chronic high levels which can wreak havoc on the body and give this essential hormone a bad name. Bottom line, cortisol is not the bad guy, but stress is! Anything you can do to reduce stressors on the body is essential to improving your health.

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