How to Keep Your Body’s Four Most Important Hormones in Balance: Part One – Cortisol.
When we consider the state of our overall wellness, many of us think of broad factors such as our diets, exercise routines, and how we feel on a day-to-day basis. But one equally important factor that most of us don’t give much thought to is our hormone levels—unless of course we’re battling with PMS or infertility, feeling the effects of menopause, or living with a teenager. However, no matter our age or sex, balanced hormones are key to good health.
They are responsible for many things, such as regulating our weight, hunger, focus, energy levels, sex drive, and so much more. Everything from an imbalanced diet, stress, lack of sleep, and environmental toxins can throw one or more kinds of hormones out of whack and unfortunately, once one is disrupted, the others are likely to follow suit. On the plus side, however, rebalancing one can also help get the others back in line.
This four-part series will look at how our body’s four key hormones—cortisol, insulin, estrogen, and testosterone—all work in tandem to keep us balanced and healthy, as well as how to recognize and treat imbalances naturally through diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes. Part One tackles cortisol, which, when out of balance, can have the biggest impact on the function of the body’s other three key hormones.
What does it do? Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone, but it’s responsible for so much more. In addition to helping us manage stress, it also helps regulate metabolism, blood pressure, energy, memory/focus, and even body temperature. Ensuring proper cortisol levels is also key to maintaining healthy levels of insulin, estrogen, and testosterone.
What causes an imbalance? When our body is running optimally, cortisol increases glucose production when we need an energy boost, such as when we’re sick or physically or emotionally taxed. Cortisol is the body’s natural defense against stress, but in our hyper-connected, fast-paced world, it can be all too easy to stress our bodies into continual overproduction. With our adrenal glands constantly pumping, our bodies keep blood sugar raised to emergency levels at all times, increasing insulin and setting off a chain reaction of other health problems.
What are signs of an imbalance? Healthy cortisol levels are very important and thankfully, your body has several ways to tell you something is off. The first is weight gain in your midsection, even when you’re eating right and exercising. This is because cortisol wreaks havoc on your blood sugar and insulin levels, prompting your body to store fat (more on insulin come in Part Two). Other signs include chronic pain (such as back- and headaches); inability to sleep, waking up exhausted, and/or getting a second wind before bed; tummy trouble (such as diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and heartburn); chronic anxiety, depression, or feeling jittery; a weakened immune system; and “brain fog.” Too much cortisol can also be detrimental to estrogen and testosterone production, as they share the same precursor hormones. When cortisol is too high, it eats up the resources necessary to generate healthy levels of reproductive hormones, thereby lowering your sex drive and interfering with their other important, body-balancing duties.
How can I lower my cortisol levels? The best way to manage high cortisol is to make time for self-care, stress-reduction, and by focusing on a healthy diet. Seven to eight hours of quality sleep every night is also vital. If you are having trouble sleeping, try increasing melatonin production by getting more sun early in the day (ideally before noon). Even a ten-minute walk outside every morning can train your body to produce melatonin earlier in the evening, helping you fall asleep easier—and on time.
There are also several ways to tweak your diet, exercise routine, and lifestyle to naturally reduce cortisol:
• Through food: A balanced diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods is at the root of all health, including cortisol level maintenance. Incorporating adaptogenic herbs into your diet, such as holy basil, ashwagandha, and licorice root, can also be helpful. Adaptogens aid the nervous system by delivering the specific nutrients your nervous system lacks, essentially becoming a customized, targeted supplement.
• Through exercise: Specific kinds of exercise may provide stress relief, but very intense cardio, like spinning and HIIT (high-intensity interval training), can actually increase cortisol levels. However, mind-body practices such as yoga and tai chi can be especially helpful in the fight against high cortisol as they combine the physical benefits of exercise with the stress-reducing power of meditation (a practice, which by itself can also be beneficial). Outdoor exercise, like a walk in the park or hike in the woods, can be another refreshing and mindful way to lower cortisol.
• Through lifestyle changes: In addition to exercise, there are several other ways to manage stress naturally. Enjoying a hot bath, regular massage, playing with pets or shelter animals, time spent with your spiritual community, exploring a mindful creative hobby (like coloring, knitting, or cross-stitch), and physical closeness with others can also help. While hugging and hand-holding have been proven to lower cortisol, so can any kind of loving touch—even an enthusiastic high-five!
•• What you should avoid: If you’re already under stress, it’s best to take a break from caffeine as it stimulates cortisol production. Other foods that feed cortisol include refined sugar, processed carbs, and trans fats. Also, look for ways to eliminate any unnecessary stress from your life, including cutting out toxic relationships and finding ways to better manage your work-life balance.
Now that we better understand cortisol’s vital role in our hormonal health, let’s learn how it impacts insulin in PART TWO of this series.