In a perfect world, our adrenal glands secrete a nice jolt of cortisol in the morning. Just enough to get us up out of bed and ready for what the day has in store. The increase from sleep levels (which need to be low so we actually can sleep) and morning levels is between 50% and 160%. When it is working properly, cortisol is our friend.
Then what happens? Throughout the day, the levels decrease steadily (or so the theory goes) so that at the end of the day, when we need to go to bed, they are at their lowest. We feel sleepy. Our metabolism slows, our heart rate and blood pressure lower and we drift off peacefully to awaken 8 hours later, rested.
Many of you are shaking your heads, or even calling me crazy right about now. If you are one of the many Americans who has problems sleeping, it is more than likely due to an imbalance in your cortisol levels. What causes that? STRESS.
Cortisol is one of the hormones pumped out by your adrenal gland, along with adrenaline and several others. It is helpful in triggering a stress response when you need to respond to danger, threat or a challenge. Again, a good thing.
However, if you are under prolonged stress, chronically anxious or simply struggling with all the demands place on you ever day, your cortisol levels get stuck. The morning jolt becomes a persistently elevated level. Metabolism remains high, heart rate never seems to slow and your blood pressure is at running-from-molten-lava levels all day long. This is decidedly not good.
With your metabolism always hyper-aroused, your sleep, if you get it, is shallow and unrestful. Perhaps you can’t fall asleep for a long time, or else you wake up after a few hours and can’t fall back. Your body is responding to cortisol levels suitable to waking up and facing the Roman hordes.
We need to sleep. Our bodies and minds function better on more sleep, and studies have proven the links between solid sleep and general health and longevity. Increased cortisol levels not only impede sleep, they also lead to weight gain, increased appetite, and cardiovascular problems.
There are some things you can do to reduce your levels of cortisol.
- Eat well. Maintain a balanced diet with plenty of veggies and fruit. Be sure to include plenty of low-glycemic index foods like eggs as well as whole grains, which help control cortisol production. Avoid processed foods and supplement with B5 and folic acid, which are also present in certain foods, such as melons, oranges, sunflower seeds, beans and fish, among others.
- Exercise. Even for those of us who don’t love exercise, it is possible to start loving the feeling it produces. Those endorphins are pretty great, and when they flood the brain after a solid workout, walk, hike, or dance party, we feel good and stress (thus cortisol) is reduced. Not only that, our capacity to cope with stress is increased.
- Supplement. Seek out an herbalist or nutritionist who can help you find out what works best to reduce your cortisol and stress levels generally. Folic acid, as mentioned above, vitamin C, Dong Quai, astragalus, valerian, and many other natural substances can help here, but it is best to seek advice or do research first before starting in on a regimen.
- Relax. Probably the hardest advice to follow, right? But I think that we just forget how to relax – so we need to practice as much as we need to practice healthy eating and exercise. Start doing it, even if you don’t do it that well at first. Sit down. Breathe deeply. Meditate, or just read a book. Sit in your garden pulling weeds, or if that is stressful, look on your weeds fondly and decide that they can stay.
To answer the question, ally or enemy, I guess it depends. Cortisol is around for a reason – to help us when we face truly stressful situations. But if our levels never decrease and we are constantly flooded with it, cortisol is definitely not our ally.