Do you have trouble sleeping, suffer from anxiety, or just feel like you’re overwhelmed by stress?
If so, you may have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. You see, cortisol is your best friend when you’re under temporary stress. In response to a stressful psychological or mental situation, such as taking a difficult test, a fight with a friend, or getting through an intense workout, the brain perceives a threat. The body secretes cortisol from the adrenal glands in order to free energy stores to give you the energy you need to get through the stress.
The catch is that once the “crisis” is over, the brain will sense that the threat is gone and send signals to return the body to a state of calm. With ongoing stress, however, the body is in a chronic state of alarm and the adrenal glands are constantly secreting cortisol.
Too much cortisol is harmful. Excessive cortisol breaks down muscle tissue, causing muscle loss. It’s associated with fat gain around the middle. And it increases the amount of free fatty acids circulating in the blood, which can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing heart disease risk.
Don’t worry. High cortisol can be solved. Here are 8 signs you need to lower your cortisol with simple, real-life tips for doing so.
#1: You Can’t Sleep
Normally cortisol follows a circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning right before you wake up and then slowly curving downward over the course of the day. But people who have high stress levels all day long will have an altered curve—they reach the end of their day and their cortisol is almost as high as it was in the morning.
High nighttime cortisol makes it hard to relax and is associated with a racing mind. Sleep will be hard to come by, and you’ll be less likely to fall into a deep sleep, meaning you miss out on the most restful and restorative REM sleep. Worst of all, lack of sleep raises cortisol even higher the next day—it’s a vicious cycle.
Solution: Try meditation. Studies show that a meditation practice can significantly improve cortisol balance, while raising levels of opposing hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. In one study, older individuals with moderate insomnia who did a meditation program significantly improved sleep as measured by the Pittsburg Quality of Sleep Index.
#2: Trouble Losing Body Fat
High cortisol makes it nearly impossible to lose body fat for a couple of reasons. First, cortisol stimulates appetite for high-energy foods that are filled with fat and carbs. This makes us more likely to overeat and gets in the way of attempts to create an energy deficit.
Second, going on a diet makes the body feel threatened and results in a cortisol release. Combine this with the perceived stress of counting calories or trying to use willpower to avoid eating, and you kick cortisol up even higher.
Third, any time cortisol is elevated in the presence of insulin, like after a high-carb meal, the body switches into fat storage mode due to an increase in the primary fat storing enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL). Insulin blocks the action of another major fat burning enzyme, hormone sensitive lipase (HSL). The combination of high insulin and cortisol is the perfect environment for gaining body fat.
Solution: Eat a whole foods, higher protein, lower carb diet. Avoid processed foods, especially refined carbs. Try planning every meal around high-quality protein (eggs, fish, meat, or legumes), healthy fat, and a vegetable to keep hunger at bay AND lower insulin so that your body spends more time in fat burning mode.
#3: Excess Belly Fat
Studies show that elevated cortisol levels tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area. This is actually a protective mechanism for the body because belly fat provides an easy source of energy for the body when it senses a crisis.
In fact, belly fat is more easily burned than subcutaneous fat—the kind that is just bellow the skin that you can pinch—because it is very responsive to the catecholamine adrenaline hormones. This is the reason that if you are chronically stressed, you may find yourself holding on to belly fat even if you are doing everything right diet- and training-wise.
Solution: Do sprints and high-intensity weight training. Research shows interval-style exercise that alternates bursts of activity with rest improves levels of enzymes involved in fat burning, while resetting the hypothalamic pituitary axis for better stress management.
The result is belly fat loss: A 12-week high-intensity interval cycling program produced a 17 percent decrease in belly fat in overweight young men. Subjects lost 1.5 kg of belly fat and 2 kg of total fat, while building 1 kg of muscle.
#4: Uncontrollable Cravings
The body uses the raw materials supplied in carbohydrates to produce cortisol. Your uncontrollable carb cravings are just your body’s way of getting you to provide it with what it needs to pump out more cortisol.
In addition, research shows that high cortisol blunts the desire for non-carb foods that are less palatable. You’re never going to want steak and Brussels sprouts, but you’ll be overwhelmed with desire for bread, cake, or other high-carb delight when you’re stressed.
Solution: A diet high in protein that provides adequate complex carbs is your best friend to keep cravings at bay. Try eating higher protein meals in the morning and at lunch and then enjoy whole-food carbs such as starchy vegetables or boiled grains at dinner.
#5: You’re Depressed
People who suffer depression tend to have elevated cortisol levels, similar to people who experience chronic stress. This is at least partly caused by the fact that the body uses the same raw materials to produce cortisol as it does the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin has anti-stress effects—it’s calming and promotes fullness and satisfaction around meals.
When cortisol is jacked up all the time, there are not sufficient building blocks for serotonin production and mood drops. Plus, no one is going to be happy if they are stressed out all the time!
Solution: Of course, it may be hard to be social if you’re really down in the dumps, but seeking out pleasurable activities has been shown to have a cortisol-lowering, mood-boosting effect because it relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system. In addition, if you’re on a low-carb diet, try eating more complex carbs throughout the day to improve serotonin production.
#6: You Suffer From Chronic Low Back Pain
Pain is stressful. It’s constant and debilitating, causing a chronic stress hormone response in many sufferers.
For example, low back pain patients have been found to have an underlying endocrine response to distress that manifests as elevated cortisol and prolactin. This combination of high cortisol and prolactin makes the brain hypersensitive to pain.
Solution: Start by treating the cause of the low back pain so that you can remove the stimulus for chronically high cortisol release. This article gives you a step-by-step approach for solving low back pain with exercise.
#7: Gut/Digestion Issues
Just about everyone has suffered from stomach problems due to intense stress. That’s because when cortisol is elevated, the body releases histamine, a compound that revs up the immune system. Histamine increases gastric acid secretion, leading to the release of other compounds that increase gut permeability and cause it to leak. When this becomes chronic, digestion gets permanently disrupted, causing problems all over the body.
Solution: Eat plenty of probiotic and high-fiber foods. Probiotics provide healthy bacteria that have an anti-inflammatory effect on the gut so that you’re less likely to develop food allergies or get sick. Probiotics also reduce leaky gut and improve absorption of nutrients that the body needs to function. Meanwhile, indigestible fiber like that found in fruits and vegetables, feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut and improves the speed which waste is eliminated.
#8: You’re Anxious All The Time
Any time you start to worry, the brain activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that regulates the release of a number of hormones including cortisol. Constant worrying kicks this process into overdrive and causes hyperactivity of the HPA axis and a host of other problems—most of which have been listed here.
A related factor is the low serotonin that people with high cortisol often suffer from, which means they never feel calm, truly happy, or that all is at peace in the world.
Solution: Avoid caffeine—in people who are anxious or mentally stressed, caffeine raises cortisol levels higher than they would be in the absence of caffeine. Don’t put fuel on the fire!
In addition, try taking magnesium, taurine, and vitamin C. Magnesium is the most effective anti-stress mineral because it calms the sympathetic nervous system, lowers heart rate, and helps you mellow out.
Taurine is an amino acid that calms anxiety and lowers cortisol by facilitating the production of the neurotransmitter GABA. In patients with clinically high cortisol—called Cushing’s disease—taurine tends to be low, whereas recovered Cushing’s patients have higher taurine and lower cortisol.
Finally, vitamin C helps clear cortisol after intense exercise or during mental stress. It also reduces stress-induced fatigue by improving immune function and countering inflammation caused by high cortisol levels.
A Few More Cortisol-Lowering Tricks:
Music—listening to music you enjoy has been shown to reduce cortisol levels. It’s also been found to speed recovery from exercise due to faster clearance of waste products by the body.
Laughter—having fun and laughing is well known for lowering stress hormones like cortisol.
Social connectivity—having fun with friends is calming and reassuring, which has a cortisol, stress-reducing effect.