Being able to respond to stress using the hormones cortisol and adrenaline is essential for survival. They help us to increase the amount of sugar in our blood to provide fuel for our muscles and brain when we are in in flight-or-fight. If we are injured, these hormones suppress inflammation, increase our heart rate and blood pressure and restrict blood flow to the digestive system. This means we are primed to deal with an emergency.
Problems arise if we become trapped in this emergency state and cannot access the rest-and-repair cycle. Symptoms are widespread: rapidly aging skin, digestion problems like constipation or diarrhoea, slow healing, weight gain around the waistline, sleep problems, low mood, anxiety, anger, thinning hair and high blood pressure.
The key to unlocking this stuck pattern is understanding what causes it. It starts in the brain, a healthy brain sends messages to the adrenal glands to tell them how much cortisol to produce. This messaging system, and therefore cortisol levels, are disrupted by conditions such as chronic pain, chronic infections (for example sinus or dental infections) and even food allergies.
The health of the brain is a consideration too. The brain’s ability to regulate cortisol levels is more limited when there has been head injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental or physical burn out or side effects from some medications. Conditions that lower oxygen levels in the brain have a similar effect, for example sleep apnoea can raise cortisol.
Cortisol levels are increased when we are busy or overwhelmed. Focussing on worries about the future, rather than living in the moment, triggers fear and raises cortisol. Poor eating habits create dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar which stimulates the release of cortisol and adrenaline in a bid to lift low blood sugar.
Excess caffeine consumption spikes cortisol, especially for those of us that are slow metabolisers of caffeine. Poor sleep caused by caffeine is another factor which can lead to cortisol imbalances the next day.
So, the important question is, what can you do to optimise your cortisol levels?
Cortisol has a daily rhythm rising rapidly after waking to get you up and running and dropping down over the day allowing you to drift off to a restful sleep. If you find the morning tough and are slow to get into gear, you may be missing this initial rise. Instead of relying on coffee, try a 30 second blast of ice cold water in your shower first thing in the morning and exercising or standing outside for about 10 minutes in early morning sunlight to boost cortisol.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been shown to help sufferers of old head injuries and PTSD. Holographic breathing techniques such as those used by Wim Hoff work in a similar way to reset the brain’s ability to signal to the adrenal glands.
If you naturally breathe through your mouth instead of your nose - because of obstructed nasal passages, sleep apnoea or chronic sinus infections – focus on resolving these issues with your doctor to improve brain function and lower cortisol levels. If you’re an occasional snorer and tend to sleep with your mouth open, a simple trick for is to use tape to ensure your mouth is closed while you sleep.
Investigating and treating chronic pain or infection, allergies or even mould exposure can make a huge difference. It reduces the burden of stress on your body and allows repair to begin.
When it comes to food, you won’t be surprised to hear that eating natural, unprocessed foods and focussing on high quality protein sources at every meal will help. This will reduce blood sugar fluctuations and the need to rely on cortisol and adrenaline to balance them.
If you are prone to over thinking and worry, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a powerful tool to break this cycle as well as mediation or Tai Chi. Some of us are genetically wired to be worriers so using calming herbs like saffron and CBD can be very helpful. Magnesium has relaxing properties and is well absorbed through the skin so bathing your feet or having a bath in magnesium flakes relaxes your mind and muscles.
At WomenWise, 7 out of every 10 women we see struggle with disrupted cortisol levels and its side effects. This contributes to a wide range of midlife symptoms, optimising your cortisol is an essential piece of restoring vitality.
- For more information about how WomenWise can help you understand your midlife body and beat your menopause symptoms, check out www.womenwise.health. We use at-home tests and a detailed questionnaire to look at the whole picture of your health and create bespoke recommendations to help you feel your best.