Stressed? You’re not alone. Many of us are spending our days high on cortisol, the primary stress hormone. High levels of cortisol in the bloodstream interfere with the proper functioning of our other hormones which help regulate appetite, sleep, sex drive, energy, and mental clarity, among other functions. Cortisol is not the enemy, it is a vital hormone in our physiology. A surge of cortisol, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, enables us to flee or fight an impending threat. It stimulates the body to make energy readily available to use for this function. Ideally, in the absence of a threat, we should revert to our “rest and digest” functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. However, many of us are stuck in sympathetic dominance, stimulating the continuous and unremitting deluge of cortisol.
Health risks of chronically high cortisol include:
- Infertility and Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Obesity, increased body fat, and metabolic syndrome in women
- Unregulated blood sugar, diabetes, and pre diabetes
- Worsening sleep and insomnia
- Bone loss in menopausal women
- Weakened immunity and delayed wound healing
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, approximately “ninety-five percent of disease is caused by or worsened by stress.” With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you lower cortisol, reestablish balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and manage stress more skillfully:
1. Breathe In
Breath work is the cornerstone of nearly all stress reduction practices. Whether practicing diaphragmatic breathing, breathing through the nose as in yoga, or mindfully focusing on the breath as in meditation, all of these practice have the effect of triggering the relaxation response. Much of the day we spend breathing shallowly, which signals an emergency alert to the body and subsequently a constant flow of adrenaline and cortisol. Deep breathing into the upper and lower lobes of the lungs signals the body to settle down. Abdominal or “belly” breathing has been shown to lower stress and cortisol and raise melatonin (a hormone associated with sleep).
Helpful Tip: Set a passcode on your phone. Every time you reach for the phone, pause to take 3-4 deep breaths before entering the code.
2. Hang Out
Social interaction’s impact on health outcomes is well documented. Socializing with supportive and engaging company can decrease cortisol and improve psychological well-being. Women benefit more from the company of other women, while men benefit from the company of women as well. Perhaps it is the “tend and befriend” nature of women that confers health benefits.
3. Drink Up
Drinking hot water, especially with lemon makes the body more alkaline and helps relax the nervous system. Adding a tea bag of green or black tea can lower cortisol. The polyphenols and flavonoids in tea may be responsible for tea’s calming effects.
There are some days when we feel like we just need a drink. However, physiologically, alcohol actually robs us of relaxation. Alcohol stimulates the production of cortisol. In addition, alcohol also clogs the liver, interfering with the liver’s ability to detoxify both physically and emotionally. Caffeine also raises cortisol as well as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and insulin. It sends the body into a state of physiological arousal (think fight or flight) leading to an overactive brain. This can be adaptive to some extent, but detrimental to people who suffer from insomnia and anxiety.
4. Chow Down
Eating a diet high in vegetables creates a more alkaline environment and lowers cortisol in the blood stream. Dr. Sara Gottfried recommends eating one pound of vegetables per day to ensure vegetables outweigh cortisol-raising foods such as dairy, gluten, and white starches.
5. Get It On
Little known fact…orgasm is an effective stress reliever. Within sixty seconds of an orgasm, oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding, floods the system, effectively lowering cortisol. A healthy sex life also lowers risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
5a. Hug it Out
Hugging also lowers cortisol by stimulating the release of oxytocin. Paul Zach, the leading expert on oxytocin, says we need to hug eight times per day to promote optimal oxytocin circulation.
6. Turn It Off
Prolonged use of technology, including cell phones, tablets, and computers, can overstimulate the nervous system and increase cortisol production. Our dependency on these technologies results in chronic physiological arousal, which can manifest as anxiety, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure and diabetes. Reducing technology use can help achieve more adaptive cortisol levels. After work hours consider leaving cell phones in a bowl where you won’t be tempted to habitually check-in. Also plan to turn off media at least two hours before bed to minimize sleep issues. When unplugging isn’t feasible, find time to counter the deleterious effects of technology with a few moments of breathing, taking a short walk, or listening to music. Most importantly get adequate sleep to help the nervous system heal and reestablish balance.
7. Sleep On It
The difference between getting six hours of sleep instead of the recommended eight hours can result in as much as fifty percent more cortisol in the bloodstream. In the Chinese medical theory of Yin and Yang, nighttime is predominantly Yin: the period of recovery and restoration. Getting eight hours of sleep during this period provides the body with the optimal amount of time to reset cortisol and restore hormone balance.
8. Get Over It
Harboring resentment raises cortisol and ages you. Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Ultimately, it only hurts you, not the recipient. On the other hand, research shows that forgiveness training can lower blood pressure, stress and anger. Forgiveness is good for your health, so for your own sake, get over it.