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Stress & Cortisol Management

by Carly Neubert, BA, NC on February 27, 2019

Updated on 02/27/19*

Every October, I begin a journey of contemplation. Fall signals a time for introspection and self-evaluation for me. Once the cool weather and wind arrive, gone are the days of hiking, kayaking, or gardening. I like to bundle up for fall weather and stay at home with a cup of bone broth. I wish I could say that I spend the winter months at home thinking, pondering, and relaxing, but we all know that isn't reality. October is usually a quiet month, but by November I am gearing up for the holidays and wondering why I am so busy and so tired.  

The idea of being over-booked, over-tired, and under-rested has become the social norm for most people. Busy-ness has morphed from a problem into a social construct and a badge of honor. The new motto seems to be "If you aren't busy, then you aren't doing enough." This societal pressure brings unforeseen and terrible consequences.

Do you wear the badge of Busyness?

If so, please take it off.

The badge or Busyness should really be labeled "The Badge of Horror." If you could actually see the tissue and cellular damage created by high levels of cortisol, you would be HORROR-fied.   

When you stay busy all day and late into the night, you are taxing your adrenal glands. You are forcing your body to make and release cortisol (stress hormone) for extended periods of time. When you do this day after day, week after week, for months on end, you are wearing down your adrenal glands and your body.

Eventually, your adrenal glands will not make enough cortisol for you to get through the day. You will plunge from over-producing cortisol to adrenal fatigue. Literally, your adrenal glands will be too fatigued to make cortisol. Instead of having high cortisol to manage all the physical and emotional stress, you wind up with a cortisol deficiency. Adrenal fatigue sets in and that can spiral downward to low immunity, auto-immune diseases, and worse.  

If you are reading this description and identify with this lifestyle, you are not alone. A majority of Americans suffer from some sort of cortisol dysregulation or failure to control cortisol levels.  

In my 10 years of clinical practice, I have seen hundreds of clients have their Adrenal Stress Index (ASI) tested. I've only seen 2 individuals who showed a "normal" cortisol level. Everyone else, hundreds of people, tested either too high or too low. Cortisol dysregulation is truly an epidemic affecting millions of Americans.  

There are several ways to test your cortisol levels. You can even order your own saliva test. I offer consultations and interpretations of your results.  

The Trifecta for Healthy Cortisol

Each one of these strategies will aid in your healthy cortisol levels. Combining all three of these strategies will give you exponentially better results.  

1. Keep your blood sugar stable by following a Paleo or Ketogenic diet.

2. Manage your stress levels; this includes sleep, exercise, and emotional stress.

3. Take supportive and adaptogenic herbs.  

Adaptogenic herbs offer support for both high and low cortisol.  An adaptogen is an "herb that increases the body's ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning." In plain English, these herbs act as stress management supplements and help your adrenal gland produce just the right amount of cortisol---not too much and not too little. Adaptogens are an interesting class of herbs that have been studied for decades.

The most promising adaptogen: Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is also called Indian Ginseng. Close to 1,000 medical studies have shown that ashwagandha decreases the side effects of stress. So whether you have high or low cortisol, it doesn't matter. Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years in India as part of Ayurvedic medicine.

The active phytochemical in ashwagandha is glycowithanolides. These phytochemicals mimic your body's natural stress-reducing hormones. If your cortisol gets too high, the glycowithanolides will signal your body to stop producing too much cortisol. Ashwagandha acts as a cortisol blocker when your body is over-producing stress hormones.  

Take a chill pill: Honokiol

Honokiol (Magnolia Bark extract) is another anti-stress nutrient. In very high doses it is a proven anti-cancer agent that stops the flow of blood to tumors (angiogenesis). In lower doses it is a remedy for anxiety.  

In low doses, Honokiol is a chill pill.  It changes some neurotransmitters in your brain, which results in less anxiety. In studies, Honokiol shows the same benefits as anti-depressants without the side effects.  

Both Ashwagandha and Honokiol are herbal solutions to an epidemic cortisol issue. Physical and mental stress are a part of your everyday life, but stress doesn't have to take a toll on your health. Learn to balance stress using the Trifecta For Healthy Cortisol. 

Please keep in mind, that You Are ENOUGH!  You don't need to run faster than you have strength. You don't need to stay up later to get more work or even more fun things accomplished. You don't need to push your body past fatigue. You don't have to be busy every single second of the day.  

Don't buy into the myth that busyness is a measure of success.

*Still have questions regarding stress, cortisol, and how to manage it all? Here are some more popular questions and answers that may help you.

What are the effects of high cortisol levels?

High stress levels will always result in high cortisol levels. Since cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”, this is often what causes feelings we associate with stress. Stress can make people feel a variety of different ways. Effects of high cortisol and stress include: increased heart rate, poor immune responses, changes in sleep, high blood pressure, change in cognitive performance, change in glucose levels, and slower wound healing. No one can continue to make high cortisol levels forever. Eventually, high cortisol turns to low cortisol.

What are the symptoms of low cortisol levels?

Low levels of cortisol may also be known as adrenal fatigue. The stress hormone cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands. These glands also produce adrenaline. Your adrenal glands are located right above the kidneys. When your adrenal glands are exhausted from constantly producing high amounts of cortisol, they begin to slow down production. You can think of your adrenal glands as a marathon runner. Just like a marathoner, they can keep running and producing stress hormones, but eventually, they will “hit the wall” and won’t be able to continue. This is called adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion.

Common causes of adrenal fatigue include:

  • Prolonged emotional stress
  • Persistent infection
  • Poor diet (high in sugar/carbs)
  • Poor or not enough sleep
  • Over-exercising
  • Mold exposure

Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue:

  • Feeling tired despite having slept well
  • Insomnia
  • Late afternoon fatigue/slump
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Body aches
  • Hair loss
  • Brain fog
  • Low blood pressure
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

You can order your own saliva test. I offer consultations and interpretations of your results.

What do cortisol levels indicate?

Your body makes and uses cortisol every day. Cortisol levels should be at their highest in the morning and slowly dip during the course of the day. By evening, your cortisol level should be at its lowest so that you can drift off to sleep. This can vary within the body.

Why is cortisol released when you’re stressed?

When you are stressed, your body enters a primal hormonal “flight or fight” pattern. Cortisol is released and surges through your body. All of your senses are heightened so that you can act and react. In past eras, you would have had to run away from a hungry tiger or fight an invading marauder. But in modern times, your cortisol “flight or fight” pattern is being activated by an angry driver, a text message, or obnoxious coworker. We are constantly being bombarded with stimuli that keep us in the “flight or fight” hormone pattern for much too long.

How do you lower your cortisol levels?

The best way to lower cortisol levels is to make small lifestyle changes that will reduce stress and ultimately your cortisol levels. There are many techniques for managing stress. Here are my top suggestions for managing stress so that you maintain balanced cortisol levels:

  1. Regular physical activity
  2. Practice mindfulness and meditation
  3. Spend time in nature
  4. Make social connections
  5. Laugh more
  6. Do volunteer work/service

For additional recipes, biohacking tips and lifestyle hacks -- check out my other blog on my coaching site www.cleancoachcarly.com! I post weekly about nutrition and lifestyle topics, all backed by science. Happy Reading!

In health,

Carly Neubert BA, NC