Today’s post is a summary of my recent social media posts on how to lower levels of cortisol through nutrition and yoga. In my nutrition and wellness coaching practice, I help women who are struggling with hormonal imbalances expressing as missing periods, unexplained infertility, PCOS, PMS or hypothyroid symptoms. These are all caused by levels of hormones which are either higher or lower than they should normally be.
As all hormones interact within the body, when one is off this can cause a cascade effect throughout the whole system. One of the main root causes of all of the hormonal conditions above is an imbalance in cortisol. In particular, high cortisol can impact levels of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid hormones through the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. This hormonal system has impacts on our metabolic, reproductive and immune systems just to name a few!
What is the problem with cortisol?
Cortisol is well known as the stress hormone but it actually does an important job keeping us alive. It helps us to manage the stresses of daily life by raising blood sugar and blood pressure to get energy and oxygen to our cells and by modulating inflammation. We are designed to experience a peak of cortisol to wake us up in the morning as well as surges whenever we need to respond to an emergency. Towards the end of the day or once the stressor has passed, cortisol levels should drop allowing us to relax and sleep well.
The problem is when we experience high levels of physical or mental stress over a long period of time, our cortisol levels can remain chronically high. Our body remains in an alarm state and is hyper-vigilant, ready to respond to any attack or urgent situation. We feel agitated and anxious, we can’t sleep and our mood, energy, digestion, libido and fertility can all suffer as a result. We can also experience blood sugar instability, high blood pressure and accelerated aging – eek!
Signs of high cortisol
So how do we know when we might want to focus on ways to lower cortisol levels? Some of the most common signs of high cortisol levels are a rapid pulse, racing thoughts or a sense of restlessness and urgency. However, high cortisol can manifest a huge variety of physical, energetic and psychological symptoms including disturbances to your digestion, mood and sleep.
You can test your cortisol levels through a saliva test. But if you experience 5 or more of the signs above then it wouldn’t do any harm to focus on ways to reduce stress and lower levels of cortisol, regardless of whether you test or not.
Causes of high cortisol
As I mentioned earlier, cortisol is a stress hormone. It is released by our adrenal glands when they receive the signal that there is an emergency and we need to be on high alert. We usually relate stress to psychological factors such as work pressure, family issues, moving house or other worries. But stress can also be caused by other lifestyle factors, especially how we move, eat, think and breathe. Some of the top “sneaky stressors” that I see in my clients are:
- Eating inadequate energy (calories) to support their activities
- Restrictive dieting e.g. cutting out food groups, low fat, low carb, vegan
- Not eating regularly e.g. intermittent fasting or having long gaps between meals
- Excessive exercise especially cardio e.g. running, cycling
- Shallow or mouth breathing
- An overly active inner critic
Sometimes simple changes can really make a difference to our bodies’ experience of stress and help to reduce cortisol levels. Especially making sure we are eating enough nutritious food and OFTEN as well as moving, thinking and breathing in a way that keeps us out of fight or flight stress mode as much as possible.
Diet to lower levels of cortisol
When it comes to eating to support lower levels of cortisol, it is important to focus on lowering physical stress by nourishing your body as best as you can. This means letting go of strict diet rules, eating enough calories and making sure to support your body with the macro and micro-nutrients it needs to thrive. When we are under a lot of stress, our bodies burn though energy and specific nutrients faster than usual so it is important to make sure we are fueling and replenishing regularly.
Some of the key nutritional strategies I recommend to my clients for reducing stress are:
- Consuming plenty of carbohydrates from natural sources e.g. fruits and roots
- Making sure to eat magnesium rich foods or supplement with epsom salt baths or transdermal magnesium
- Eating foods rich in B vitamins, particularly B5 and B6
- Consuming oily fish such as sardines or salmon or adding in a high quality fish oil supplement
If you are following a low carb diet – forget it! Including plenty of natural carbohydrates and especially sugars from fruits, roots and honey will support your higher energy requirements during a stressful period and help to reduce physiological stress on your body from lack of energy. Giving your body the calories and carbohydrates it needs will help to lower cortisol levels and will also help to reduce cravings and over eating due to stress. Your body is smart and it sends those signals for a reason!
Adding in foods containing magnesium and B vitamins is also helpful as we burn through these important nutrients much faster when under stress. Foods containing magnesium include dark chocolate, sesame seeds and dark leafy greens. B vitamins can be found in dairy, legumes, meat and wholegrains. Cod liver oil is a good all round supplement that can reduce stress related inflammation and support mental health.
Yoga to lower levels of cortisol
Yoga and meditation are amazing ways to lower cortisol levels naturally. Moving and breathing in a way that reduces activity in the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and activates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system will lower stress in your body and mind. Below is a simple 20 minute sequence you can use daily in the evening after a stressful day or before bed to wind down and get a healing night’s sleep.
From left to right:
- Extended child’s pose – hold for 3 mins with forehead resting on the mat or a block or pillow
2/3 Cow pose/Cat pose – flow between these 2 poses for 1 min syncing with the breath
4. Legs up the wall – 5 mins with legs resting against the wall if possible
5. Reclining twist – 3 mins per side option to place a pillow under the knee for support
6. Savasana – 5 mins focusing on deep belly breathing
Practice this simple sequence regularly, focusing on slowing down and being present, to reduce cortisol levels naturally.
Lifestyle to lower cortisol
Implementing the simple strategies in this post is an amazing first step if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of high cortisol above. Other supportive activities for lowering cortisol include gentle walks in nature, listening to music, journaling, creative work or any other way you like to slow down, let go of busyness and be present.
It’s so easy in today’s world to get swept up in work, tasks, social media and to be constantly doing, learning and taking in more and more information. But our bodies were designed for a much slower pace of life and we have to honour that from time to time. This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon everything and go and live in the mountains far away from civilisation. It just means that we need to become aware of our bodies’ signals of stress and find small ways to ground ourselves and connect within daily.
Over to you…
If you would like to work with me to balance your hormones and improve your health, contact me to set up a free 15 minute discovery call. I am a nutritionist, yoga teacher and women’s wellness coach. We work together using a combination of modalities to support your individual needs and help you to feel your best.
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