If you have trouble sleeping, low libido, anxiety or depression, having trouble losing weight or keeping muscle on, you may have high cortisol. There are many reasons cortisol goes up, many other symptoms, and a few simple ways to get it under control. I will explain it all very simply here!
There are so many symptoms associated with stress and elevated cortisol that it is difficult to list them all. However, some of the most common and obvious are poor sleep, irritability, heartburn, constipation, indigestion, bloating, moodiness, depression/anxiety/mental health issues, weight gain, weak muscles, brain fog, fatigue, inflammation, low libido, diabetes, or elevated HBA1C, belly fat, and high blood pressure.
First of all, you do not need to get your cortisol tested. If you have symptoms of high cortisol, you can take the suggested tips at the end of this article to improve it. They are all sound advice for your health regardless if your cortisol is high or not. That being said, you can test your cortisol to find out, as confirmation. It can be done via saliva, blood sample, or urinalysis.
Saliva tests can show a fairly accurate picture of your fluctuating cortisol levels as they rise and fall throughout the day. Blood samples show one exact point in time. Urinalysis shows a 24 hour average of your levels and is the most accurate.
What is Cortisol, and what causes it to rise?
Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone that rises and falls with your circadian rhythms. When the body makes this hormone under stress, it prepares for fighting or fleeing from danger. This is helpful if you are attacked or need quick reflexes in the case of an accident, for example. This and other stress hormones are also released due to any other forms of stress and continue to be when we are under chronic stress. There are many reasons for this, but they can easily fit into three buckets; physical, emotional, and chemical can increase stress.
The stress response is there to protect you from dying in the case of injury or attack.
Physical – overexercising, too low of calories, lack of nutrients, lack of carbohydrates, lack of sleep, high altitudes, extreme temps, etc.
Emotional – perceived stress can be different for different people. What seems stressful to one is not stressful to all. Therefore, if you perceive a situation as stressful, it IS stressful, and your body will respond accordingly. Feeling sad, anxious, depressed, or fearful are all associated with the stress response.
Chemical – Toxin exposure doesn’t seem stressful because it doesn’t make you FEEL stressed; however, your body is burdened with detoxifying and responding to chemicals that it comes into contact with and will often respond with elevated cortisol. This can be from toxins in the air, water, food, and even things that make their way into your bloodstream from your skin.
Why high cortisol is a problem:
Chronically elevated cortisol increases the risk for cancers due to chronic inflammation https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476783/.
Cortisol reduces the ability to build and sustain muscle mass which affects body composition; “ In the presence of cortisol, muscle cells decrease glucose uptake and consumption and increase protein degradation; this supplies gluconeogenesis with glucogenic amino acids.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
Cortisol increases insulin resistance and elevates glucose (CHRONICALLY); “Excess of glucocorticoids increase glucose and insulin and decrease adiponectin levels.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688585/
Cortisol impairs digestion and transit time due to reduced digestion capabilities such as HCL and peristalsis; https://caps.byu.edu/stress-and-the-digestive-system.
Elevated stress impairs metabolism, and serotonin suppresses mitochondrial energy production. (www.raypeat.com) It also causes weight gain, especially in the midsection. “Large doses of glucocorticoids lead to redistribution of fat to the upper trunk and face, with a concomitant loss of fat in the extremities.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK13780/
Hypothyroidism increases serotonin activity in the body, as it increases estrogen dominance. (raypeat.com) http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/glucose-sucrose-diabetes.shtml
Stress and depression are related to various digestive diseases, and they may be predisposing factors for Functional Dyspepsia and IBS. Depression may also be a cause of gastric cancer. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4398234/
Eight Ways To Reduct Cortisol
- Get enough sleep and fix interrupted sleep. Sleep is the time to reset our stress hormones. If you are not sleeping, it may well be due to high cortisol, so use the other tips to reduce it. It is a perpetuating issue, so high cortisol can ruin your sleep, and poor sleep will keep it elevated.
2. Eat More often; fasting increases cortisol, especially low blood sugar. The body does not like to have low blood sugar, and when that happens, it will pull from your tissues and organs to make it in the liver, a process called gluconeogenesis. This is also stressful on the body and only happens in the presence of cortisol.
3. Consume glucose/carbohydrates; eating too low of carbohydrates increases cortisol. Keeping the blood sugar balanced will help you avoid the problems above. Likewise, eating enough carbs to keep your body from performing gluconeogenesis will help to reduce cortisol levels.
4. Eat gelatin (glycine) Glycine is recognized as an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter and promotes natural sleep. (raypeat.com)
5. Include Salt as it naturally reduces cortisol. However, simply salting food to taste is all that is necessary.
6. Reduce toxic exposure by drinking filtered water, avoiding chemicals in your food and water, and if necessary but an air filter for your home. Don’t forget to check your personal care products for chemicals; they are very loosely regulated, if at all.
7. Reduce emotional and mental stressors as much as possible. Take time for self-care, relaxation, and even just some simple deep breathing exercises. Take breaks, reduce your workload and learn to say “no” when necessary.
8. Increase oxytocin. This is the hormone that antagonizes cortisol. You can get it by having fun, laughing, smiling, being with friends and family, playing with pets, snuggling, hugging, and all forms of physical touch. Do not isolate yourself when stressed; it can really backfire. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31227958/
Do you need help reducing stress? Book a 1-1 coaching session to get started or take one of my self-guided courses.
Ray Peat www.raypeat.com/articles