Chances are, your stress levels have been abnormally high in the past couple of years. You may have even gotten used to it.
Busyness and stress were normalized in our culture long before any pandemic. Hustle culture and achievement-based worth is the norm in our society. Unfortunately, that’s not so good for our health.
The human body wasn’t designated to sustain high levels of stress on a near-constant basis. We’re designed to experience bursts of nervous system activation (fight or flight) that are balanced with calming nervous system states (rest and digest). Unending stress lowers immune function, makes you more susceptible to virtually every major disease, and severely diminishes our quality of life.
You’ll notice that on days when stress spirals out of control, you’re more short-tempered, irritable, and prone to low moods. Over time, stress can affect your outlook. It can feel like all the color got drained out of your life. Perhaps you notice you’ve packed on more weight around your belly, wake up in the middle of the night, or have irregular periods.
These are all signs of elevated cortisol, the culprit behind stubborn belly fat, premature hair loss, and host of other delights. While high cortisol levels aren’t pleasant, they do lead your body to exhibit some significant signs. These signs are your body’s way of telling you things need to change.
In this article, you’ll learn to read the signs of damaging stress levels and take practical, manageable steps to lower cortisol and stress levels one step at a time.
How Does Cortisol Get Elevated?
As we’ve covered, our bodies need a balance between being activated and calmed.
But get this: Your body registers certain states and activities as stress even when your mind doesn’t. You may not think that your workday was stressful, but if you powered through your morning break, inhaled your lunch at warp speed while still typing at the computer, and spent your evening scrolling online, your body stayed in a state of high alert.
That’s because, technically, anytime your body is in an activated nervous system state, you are under stress. With technology alerts coming in 24/7, a barrage of media at all times, and the daily pressures of work, family, and mental health, it’s safe to say that many people are in a perpetual state of stress.
For example, shallow breathing will naturally keep your nervous system in an activated state, and guess what? Simply working on the computer has been shown to cause us to hold our breath, a phenomenon known as email apnea.
When under any type of stress (whether it’s short term, chronic, or due to a traumatic incident) your adrenal glands pump cortisol out to help mobilize you to protect yourself from threat. That’s why it affects nearly all tissues in your body, including your nervous, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, and musculoskeletal systems.
Cortisol controls metabolic processes, suppresses inflammation, and regulates your sleep and wake cycle, among other things.
In other words, cortisol impacts your body in a lot of very important ways. When your cortisol levels are elevated for too long, you will see its effects across your body systems.
What Does High Cortisol Feel Like?
- Waking up in the middle of the night, especially around 3 am – 5 am
- Diminished overall sleep quality
- Feeling easily irritated or angry
- Heightened startle response and sensory sensitivity
- Weight gain, especially around the belly
- Rounding and weight gain in the face
- Hair loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Lowered sex drive
If this is you, don’t fret or beat yourself up. That won’t help, and besides, just because you’re stressed doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Life is challenging.
Do take note of your symptoms and commit to making any lifestyle changes you can to restore your health.
How to Regulate Your Cortisol Levels
Whether you know you have high cortisol levels or not, you can benefit from some simple, daily practices that add up over time. A balanced nervous system and normal cortisol levels will make life more enjoyable and peaceful for you. It’s simply a matter of being proactive.
Take Small Steps to Reduce Stress Every Day
When it comes to regulating cortisol levels, most internet wisdom will tell you the basics: Get some sleep, exercise, lean on positive relationships, and lower stress.
We know it’s not always that easy. Not everyone has a massive support system (if they did, they probably wouldn’t be under so much stress) or the ways and means to lower stress. Sometimes working several jobs is necessary, and it’s not like you can wave a magic wand to get rid of family obligations or situations you have no control over.
In these cases, you need to focus on what you can control. Take small steps every day to have a healthier lifestyle, most especially in terms of mental health.
For example, you might make a point to take ten, deep belly breaths every morning rather than committing to a complicated breathwork practice that takes up too much time. Or, decide that each time you’re about to click away from your work and doomscroll, you’ll take a deep breath instead.
You can also make a choice to avoid draining, stressful activities like scrolling social media and online shopping (if it’s driven by a sense of lack or causes you to overspend). Replace one unhealthy habit at a time, such as reading a funny book before bed instead of binging Netflix.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
It’s time to consider your priorities. What really matters in your life? How can you make room for what brings you joy? What activities and situations can go? Instead of piling more and more on your list of things to do, things to be, or places to go, streamline and focus only on what’s most important.
Sit down and reflect on how you spend your time. Rushing and cramming things in won’t do your cortisol levels any favors. What are the things you do for others rather than yourself? What are you doing out of a sense of obligation, not joy?
If you’re prone to trying to do too much, consider crossing items off of your to do list before the day begins. Let’s say you have a workout class, a Netflix episode you want to catch, emails to reply to, and a few chores to complete, all in the evening after work. What can wait? Cross at least one thing off that list.
Remember also that it’s okay to be idle. Not every moment has to have a specific focus or outcome, or needs to be meaningful.
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Be Creative with Getting Support
If you have an incredible support system, more power to you. You are lucky if you have loving friends and family who accept you as you are, make you laugh, and can share in the good and bad times with you.
It’s easy to want to withdraw during challenging times, but if you truly have people you can rely on, avoid that temptation. Reach out even if it’s just to catch a funny film together. Talk to trusted people about any issues you’re facing if you feel comfortable doing so.
Not everyone has such an incredible network though. There are plenty of people who are isolated, whether it’s because they moved to a new city, just went through a break-up, live in a rural area, or have always been shy and introverted.
Plus, there are plenty of people with community they don’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing challenging situations with. In both cases, being social might mean getting creative.
Even a Facebook group of people who are going through similar things like you (for example, a group for people new to a city, who just went through a break-up, or who are dealing with a challenging family) can help you feel supported and seen.
You can also try new hobbies like a pottery class, writing group, or stand-up paddleboarding meetup. Break out of your comfort zone by doing something fun that brings freshness and vitality back into your life. Schedule plenty of fun activities — ones that make you laugh.
On the other hand, if you’re struggling with something serious, you might try support groups. Maybe you have a family member who struggles with alcohol or a kid with ADHD who’s having a hard time at school. If you’re going through it, someone else is too. It’s just a matter of finding them.
The point is, we do need social support to make it through the tough times in life. In whatever way you need to do it, find those people who can support you.
Try Cortisol Blockers and Cortisol-Lowering Foods
Sometimes the most effective thing to do is directly deal with the high cortisol itself. Cortisol-blocking supplements and cortisol-lowering foods can do exactly that.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid produced naturally by the body that can be taken in supplement form. It’s been shown to reduce cortisol levels and can be taken daily.
Adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Gotu Kola, can regulate the stress response, leading to lower cortisol levels.
Eat a diet that’s good for your gut microbiome including fresh vegetables, fruits, and fermented foods.
Try foods and supplements that are high in Omega 3 fatty acids like fish oil, avocados, olive oil, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
Make sure you’re getting plenty of magnesium, B vitamins, and protein in your diet.
Exercise in Moderation
Breaking a sweat is key to so many things. At this point, it’s almost inevitable that exercise will make the list of tips to combat almost any issue.
When it comes to stress, exercise has been shown to improve sleep, improve mood, and boost overall well-being, all of which naturally lower cortisol. Plus, while exercise is associated with a temporary surge of cortisol, it lowers significantly only hours later. Over time, that initial cortisol surge begins to lessen too.
That said, if you’re into intense workouts like HITT and Crossfit or endurance sports like running or biking, you may be at risk for high cortisol levels. The intensity and length of time that your body is under stress (exercise is a form of stress too) means your body never gets the chance to taper off the initial spike.
If you already have high cortisol levels due to stress like managing a graduate-level workload or going through a divorce, intense exercise can make it even worse. If you’ve got a ton on your plate already, skip out on high-intensity or endurance training. Go for moderation, around 150 to 200 minutes per week of low to mid-intensity workouts.
Stick to a Routine
Our bodies like routine. A changing schedule can throw our bodies into chaos, while a steady, predictable schedule helps us — and our bodies — feel safe.
Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day will help regulate your sleep cycles, making it easier to get quality sleep. One trick to try is getting sunlight first thing in the morning. This resets the body clock, as 12 hours after your first exposure to the sun, your body will naturally start producing melatonin.
Eating regular meals is also helpful for maintaining a sense of calm. In Ayurveda, the system of medicine in India originating over 3,000 years ago, consistent eating routines help those who are prone to worry, insomnia, and anxiety feel more grounded and calm. This is bound to reduce cortisol levels.
Life is chaotic, and there is so much out there we can’t control. Having some simple rituals in place can tether us to our center, keeping us calmer and less prone to react. Try things like reading every night before bed, going for a walk after dinner every night, or spending one night a week without screens.
Lastly, developing a spiritual practice like meditation or intention-setting is one of the best routines you can have for your overall well-being. Start each morning with an intention, whether https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/ayurvedait’s peace, connection, joy, or something else, and get in the routine of creating your life rather than just reacting to it.
You Can Naturally Balance Your Cortisol Levels
Our bodies weren’t designed to endure unending stress, yet many of us do just that. This leads to high levels of cortisol that are some of the culprits behind belly fat, irritability, poor sleep, and numerous other unpleasant symptoms of elevated stress. If your cortisol levels are high, your body is not in the best position to defend against daily emotional ups and downs. It’s also more prone to disease.
Luckily, you can take charge of your cortisol levels by taking small, daily actions like belly breathing, setting intentions, taking supplements, and simplifying your life. A life lived with more peace and calm is well worth the effort.
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