Are you familiar with the hormone cortisol?
Cortisol is mostly produced by your adrenal glands - little triangular shaped organs about 2cmx5cm that sit on top of your kidneys.
Most people are familiar with cortisol as the primary stress hormone.
Here’s how it works: when you come into contact with something your body perceives as a threat, this activates the sympathetic branch of your nervous system - commonly known as the fight / flight / freeze response.
Your body will produce a cascade of hormones designed to help you survive a dangerous situation. This includes adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster, your blood pressure to rise, and gives you a surge of energy.
Cortisol increases your blood glucose levels, and enhances the brain’s ability to use glucose.
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE:
Your body can run on different fuel sources.
Its principal energy source is glucose.
When you eat carbs or protein, your body breaks it all down into glucose.
Your body will use what it needs, and store the rest for later.
This is why cortisol increases blood glucose in times of perceived stress. To make sure there is adequate, easy fuel available for your brain and muscles.
However, the only things in your body that absolutely NEED glucose to function are your kidney medulla, testicles (if you have ‘em), neurons (your brain), and red blood cells.
But everything else in your body can run on a different fuel source called ketones, the significance of which is a topic for another day.
Cortisol also slows down other bodily functions that it considers non-essential in a life or death situation. It changes your immune system response, and it suppresses your digestion, reproductive system and growth processes.
The fight / flight / freeze system also interacts with the areas of the brain that are responsible for mood, motivation, and fear.
The inbuilt alarm system is intended to be what they call “self-limiting” - which means it’s meant to go like this:
THREAT IS PERCEIVED > FIGHT / FLIGHT / FREEZE RESPONSE ACTIVATES > THREAT PASSES > HORMONE LEVELS RETURN TO NORMAL.
But that’s not how it goes.
Your fabulous body is a primal thing. But it has not developed the awareness to differentiate between a saber toothed tiger and a dickhead boss.
The tiger thing is pretty simple. You’re either going to get away or get eaten.
The dickhead boss. He’s there every. single. day.
And so your body winds up experiencing long-term activation of the stress response system.
These hormones that are designed to increase for just short periods of time are then continually pumped out into your system, remaining at elevated levels.
Symptoms of high cortisol can include:
Increased belly fat, loss of muscle in thighs and butt
Painful, weak knees
Increased blood pressure
Decreased potassium and magnesium levels
Low stomach acid > digestive issues
Restless leg syndrome
Lowering of vitamin D levels
Slow healing and easy bruising
Waking between 2-2:30am
Menstrual cycle changes - irregular or missing periods, failure to ovulate, low progesterone levels (your body has to choose between making progesterone or making cortisol and it WILL choose cortisol every time) which can lead to increased PMS, insomnia and anxiety.
SECOND IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Cortisol is not bad. It plays a very important role in many bodily processes. All this is not to demonize cortisol but rather to highlight the importance of turning off your body’s threat alarm system.
And that’s not cortisol’s job. That’s your job.
So, how do you keep your cortisol levels under control?
One of the most important things to do is learn how to manage your stress.
And if you're thinking to yourself: "OK great, but what does that even mean??"
Nervous system training. Train your nervous system to move out of fight / flight / freeze response and back into rest / digest / repair.
Watch this video to learn 3 simple exercises to reset your nervous system and signal to your body to turn off the threat alarm system.
You can also sleep more, walk in nature more, meditate, journal, sing, dance, laugh, have great sex, quit your shitty job, figure out your finances, fix your relationship. You’re a big girl now. No one is coming to save you.* It's up to you to figure it out.
Get more Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. These help to lower cortisol and it’s highly unlikely you’re getting enough.
The best sources of Omega-3 is fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines (I am currently trying to like sardines. I loathe them, but they are little health bombs. If you like them, I envy you greatly). You can take a cod liver oil or fish oil supplement, but this can be tricky since even the good quality ones go rancid very quickly.
Magnesium - yet another reason to take a magnesium supplement; magnesium helps you break down cortisol. (If you're confused by the different types of magnesium out there and wondering which type is best, see my magnesium post.)
Remember, your hormones are like an orchestra. They must work together. In tune and in time. Otherwise it’s a disaster.
The sound of an out of tune, out of time orchestra is painful to hear.
When your hormones are out of whack, your body is working like a dodgy orchestra. That’s why you feel like crap.
The good news is, this orchestra has a conductor. You.
*No one is coming to SAVE you, but that doesn’t mean there is no one around to HELP you.
If you’re drowning under a mountain of stress and need to get your shit sorted out in order to feel and function better, I offer something called a $97 Power Hour.
In 60 minutes we figure out a personalised action plan that you can implement to improve your hormonal health, while also improving other areas of your life.
Here’s how to apply for a $97 Power Hour:
Type POWER HOUR in the subject line.
Tell me the number one thing you’re struggling with.
Hit send, and I’ll be in touch.
Enjoyed this article and want more like it? Sign up to my weekly newsletter here. No spam. Just the good stuff. (And a little behind-the-scenes from my life in Mexico to boot).
Or if you’re a woman 35+ you might like to join my free Facebook Group: Perimenopause Powerhouses.