Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands and is known as a “stress hormone”. When our bodies experience a “threat” or stressor, we produce a “fight or flight” response in which cortisol is released. Acute stressors may be factors such as environmental stress (family, work, relationships), exercising, and injury. Once a stressor has passed, cortisol levels tend to return to normal. But with our ever-stressful lives and environments, our bodies may feel like we are constantly “under attack”, causing a constant release of cortisol within the body.

  Cortisol plays a large role in immune health, inflammation, regulating blood sugar, and energy usage. Although acute elevation of cortisol is normal, chronically elevated levels can take an extremely negative toll on us. During stressful times, cortisol release causes a rise in glucose provided to our bodies. As you can imagine, chronically elevated cortisol levels could then lead to chronically elevated blood glucose levels. In regards to inflammation, when we experience chronic inflammation due to poor lifestyle factors, suboptimal diet, and environmental stressors, cortisol levels are consistently elevated. This can lead to a suppressed immune system and risk of autoimmune disease. Chronically elevated cortisol levels may also lead to weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive issues, cardiovascular disease, sugar/salt cravings, and feeling “wired and tired”.

     Before making any assumptions about your cortisol levels, it’s always important to work with a trusted healthcare provider and test to see where your levels lie. Blood, urine, or salivary test can be implemented to check levels. I would recommend a 4-point salivary cortisol test for accuracy, as levels do change at various times throughout the day.

  Cortisol is needed for the proper functioning of our bodies and our health, but we want to ensure we’re taking steps to reduce levels if we’re aware that we are under constant stress. Here are some ways we can combat chronic elevation or avoid experiencing it:

∙         Reduce overall stress. I know, I know – everyone tells you to reduce stress. But this is going to be the main driver in bringing those cortisol levels down. Let go of negative relationships, set boundaries at work, genuinely make time to do activities that you love to do, leave the “constantly grinding” mentality behind – you can’t pour from an empty cup.

∙         Prioritize sleep. Create a bed-time routine and stick to it. Meditate, light a candle, and put your phone on Do Not Disturb one hour before you close your eyes.

∙         Reduce workout frequency / intensity + prioritize recovery. Are you constantly overdoing it on cardio? Are you constantly pushing your body’s limits with little recovery? Training is a stressor on our bodies, and too much for too long can increase cortisol levels.

∙         Focus on anti-inflammatory foods. Reduce the overall intake of processed foods and added sugars. Focus on foods that you digest well and that can help to reduce inflammation (omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, whole grains).

∙         Reduce the extra caffeine. Despite popular belief, coffee is not a meal. Do you really need that extra cup of coffee or energy drink?

∙         Create meals and snacks that help to balance blood sugars. Ensure that you are always pairing two macronutrients together and consuming full meals. Aim to pair a carb with a fat or protein during snacks. At mealtime, aim to fill your plate with fibrous veggies, a lean source of protein, a complex carb, and some healthy fats. Focus on consuming meals that your body responds well to, help you to feel satiated, and provide an adequate amount of fiber as well.  

∙         Consider taking adaptogens. Some to consider – Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Maca. Understand that no amount of adaptogen or supplement will “fix” your problems if you do not address the root cause(s) of your overall stress, though.

  I suggest choosing one or two of these strategies to begin with, building up habits with them, and implementing more from there. Be consistent with your efforts and always be an advocate for how your body feels. You know yourself best!

-Kaylin Hauge BS, CSCS


Disclaimer:  The author is not a physician or a registered dietitian. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician.