How To Balance Your Cortisol Levels

By Ellie Smith

1 week ago

The stress hormone, explained


Cortisol is one of the biggest health buzzwords of the moment. TikTok is awash with videos of wellness gurus blaming imbalances in the ‘stress hormone’ for everything from acne to weight gain – yet the world of cortisol is often misunderstood. Like all hormones, cortisol has important functions in the body, and levels rise and fall naturally. However, when our levels are out of kilter, it can lead to short and long-term wellbeing problems, so keeping an equilibrium is important. We asked Alice Mackintosh, registered Nutritional Therapist and co-founder of supplements brand Equi, to shed some light on one of the biggest health topics of the moment.

Balancing Cortisol Levels: A Nutritionist’s Guide

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is an essential hormone in the body with far-reaching impacts on our day-to-day wellbeing. Produced by our adrenal glands, which sit just above our kidneys, cortisol is often dubbed the ‘stress hormone’ because it plays a vital role in the body’s response to stress, also known as the ‘fight or flight response’. By regulating various functions throughout the body, such as increasing heart rate and blood pressure, boosting glucose levels in the bloodstream, and sharpening brain function, it prioritises essential bodily processes to help us think or run our way out of stressful situations, while momentarily shelving non-urgent functions like digestion and reproduction.

Its lesser-known roles are just as crucial because it governs a healthy sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm. The right amount of cortisol helps us feel awake, alert, warm, and able to concentrate during the daytime, yet able to slow down, switch off, and sleep deeply overnight.

Coffee

Pexels

Why do we need to balance our cortisol levels?

Like most hormones in the body, we need to have just the right amount of cortisol. Too much can leave us feeling jittery, anxious, and tired-but-wired, and too little saps our energy, focus, mood, and immunity. Cortisol follows a natural rhythm over the course of the day. Broadly speaking, it starts rising in the early morning, peaking around 11am – helping us feel alert, energized, warm, and able to focus – before beginning to decline over the afternoon. This naturally leads to a bit of a dip in energy at around 3 or 4pm before it tails off over the course of the evening to help us relax. This enables melatonin to rise so that we can fall asleep naturally and regenerate overnight.

Keeping this balance is what helps us feel our best, but it is a cycle that is impacted heavily by our diet and lifestyle – stress, caffeine, exercise, lack of sleep, a sugary diet, and medications can all impact it. In the short term, this isn’t so much of a problem, and the body can adapt, especially if you also supply your adrenals with the right nutrients to stay healthy, but over time it can begin to have ramifications on your health.

What are some symptoms of cortisol imbalance?

One of the reasons we have evolved as humans is because of cortisol – it allows us to perceive danger and respond accordingly. The fight or flight response is very well-suited to running and fighting life-threatening situations; however, in the modern world, many of the stresses we face are less invasive, and often there can be low-level, chronic stress going on. 

Poor sleep is probably one of the first signs that your cortisol cycle may be out of whack – finding you wake in the night and can’t go back to sleep or feeling tired in the evening yet wired, struggling to switch off. Elevated cortisol during the day can leave us feeling anxious, especially if we are in the office or a meeting and can’t be physically active when feeling stressed. Other more subtle signs are low energy (even after a good night’s sleep), inability to focus, sugar cravings, or always needing that extra cup of coffee to get going. Long-term stress can impact our immunity, cause inflammation, lead to digestive issues, skin problems, hair loss and more. 

What are some common misconceptions surrounding cortisol?

I would say the main one is that cortisol is the bad guy – as we’ve explained here, we really do need cortisol; it’s just about keeping it balanced! The other one is that we are all ‘burnt out’ or adrenally exhausted. Yes, long-term stress will put a huge strain on our adrenal systems, but full burnout is actually quite rare. Our adrenal systems are built to help us cope with times of stress; however, the best way to keep them healthy is to treat them right to ensure they can bounce back, keeping us resilient.

Scrambled eggs

Getty Images

What are the key ways we can balance our cortisol?

  • Often what we do within the first two hours of waking has the biggest impacts on our day. Within the first 90 minutes, get daylight into your eyes for around 10 minutes (not through a window ideally) and resist tea/coffee until after this point. 
  • Protein at breakfast also prevents cortisol spikes that can lead to you dipping in energy later on. Go for eggs, seeds, nuts, cottage cheese, or smoked salmon. 
  • Exercise is great for stress, cortisol balance, and sleep, but avoid strenuous workouts before bed. 
  • If you’re stressed, fasting may not be for you – wait until you’re in a better place. 
  • Fibre is vital for your gut microbiome, which impacts your response to stress. 
  • Aim to get 10 plants per day from different groups: veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds, grains, lentils, beans, herbs, and spices all count. 
  • Supplements can be incredibly invigorating if you’re stressed and fast-track results, especially if you’re burning the candle at both ends and not always able to eat well – B vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc are vital to keep your adrenals healthy. Equi ensures that every nutrient is at the optimal level to restore adrenal function. 
  • Science shows that adaptogenic herbs (ashwagandha, rhodiola, schisandra, Siberian ginseng) as well as medicinal mushrooms (reishi, shiitake, cordyceps) can have balancing impacts on that all-important cortisol cycle, reducing levels if they are high whilst regenerating and restoring normal function. This is why Equi adds a daily dose of adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms into each daily dose. 
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening (after 12pm) as it affects the REM/deep sleep quality of your sleep. 
  • Alcohol also impacts sleep cycles and cortisol yet we drink more when we are stressed. Look for zero percent options and try to keep to the recommended 14 units per week. 
  • Prioritize sleep and good sleep hygiene. 
  • Reduce bright light exposure in the evenings where possible. 
  • Before bed, try some magnesium (supplement or Epsom salt bath).