A worryingly elevated cortisol level is a common condition among those of us experiencing long-term stress. And this can have multiple negative health consequences. Stress, cortisol, our adrenal function and insulin levels can all take a battering in this ‘vicious cycle’. Apart from the typical symptoms of stress such as fatigue and sleep disruptions one obvious manifestation for someone suffering from chronically elevated cortisol levels is to put on weight and the inability to lose excess weight.
Stress truly does have a negatively ‘cascading’ effect on us. Stress can cause exhaustion, leaving you less likely to spend time exercising or preparing healthy meals. Stress can interfere with your ability to sleep well, and that raises levels of ‘hunger hormones’, making you conversely want to eat more. Stress can also lead to anxiety or depression, which is the driver for emotional eating and food addiction for a large number of people.
Stress can also physically raise your blood level of the hormone called cortisol and that can make it almost impossible to lose weight. Research study’s indicates that this is particularly true if you have been experiencing long term stress and if you carry excess weight on your abdomen.
So what is cortisol? There are two glands that sit ‘on top’ of your kidneys called adrenal glands; and cortisol is a hormone made by our adrenal glands. Like a lot of other important hormones in your body the cortisol hormone is actually made of cholesterol. It is normal and beneficial to have some cortisol in your bloodstream at all times, indeed it is meant to be highest in the morning, to give you some energy and motivation to get out of bed and go to work.
Conversely cortisol levels are supposed to drop off in the evening, in order to help you relax, unwind and get ready to sleep. Problems arise when there is too much cortisol in the bloodstream all day and night. It is also possible to be deficient in this hormone and this happens in people with ‘adrenal gland exhaustion’.
When we get stressed our adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline too in order to give us energy, and increase the blood flow to our muscles. This is the ‘fight or flight’ priming by our body which goes all the way back to caveman days when everyday really was about survival.
When the feeling of stress passes, these hormones are supposed to fall back down again and allow you to feel relaxed. Unfortunately some people never feel relaxed; they unfortunately ‘lurch’ from one type of stress to the next from the moment they wake up until they collapse into bed at night.
Having chronically high blood levels of cortisol is a problem for many reasons and these include:
- Cortisol can raise our blood sugar levels. It is supposed to do that in the short term in order to give us energy, but chronic and consistent elevated blood sugar can raise the risk of type 2 diabetes. Cortisol also weakens our insulin resistance and this makes it harder for insulin to work properly in our body. This scenario has been termed ‘Syndrome X’ – one of the most common reasons a person can’t lose weight.
- Excess cortisol promotes weight gain around the torso. It also promotes fat deposits inside the liver and all around the abdominal organs. This is dangerous because we know that excess weight in these areas raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
- Excess cortisol can make us ‘feel’ hungrier and crave sugary or salty foods. This is because the cortisol levels impair the ability of insulin to work in our body. This means glucose is less successful at entering our cells where it should be burnt off for energy. Consequently our cells end up being somewhat ‘starved’ of energy. This reaction will mean signals are sent to our brain telling us to eat something – especially something sugary.
- Cortisol can suppress our immune system functions. One of the natural functions of cortisol is to reduce inflammation in our body. Hence cortisol is used medically for autoimmune diseases and conditions with excess inflammation. However problems occur if our own body’s production of cortisol remains elevated for an extended period of time. This has the effect of suppressing our immune system and makes us much more likely to contract infections such as colds and flu. This scenario is further exacerbated as it also means these infections are more difficult to overcome.
- Cortisol can interfere with our ability to sleep. If our cortisol level has been high all day the likelihood is these levels will not drop sufficiently at night. This can make it more difficult for us to fall asleep and it can cause poor and disrupted sleep.
Reducing raised cortisol levels naturally
It’s easier said than done to simply say – “reduce your stress and thus reduce raised cortisol levels”. Getting on top of stress is sometimes quite literally a battle.
However, just as stress can create a ‘domino effect’ whereby one aspect of our stressed condition further exacerbates our physical and mental well-being – and so on. So we can adopt an approach to gradually reverse or ‘unwind’ our stressful state literally one-step at a time. Here are some suggestions:
- Try to improve your sleep patterns. There are plenty of reputable websites with lots of free advice –for example the relevant pages on the NHS website. Google phrases like ‘advice on sleeping problems’ – butavoid the commercial websites.
- Gentle exercise. This doesn’t have to be a sweaty gym workout. A daily twenty minute a day walk in the park is a great starting point for example.
- Increase your ‘anti-inflammatory’ foods. Undue inflammation in our body is perceived as a type of stress and therefore promotes raised cortisol. Some of the worst foods for raising bodily inflammation are sugar, dairy products, gluten, margarine, alcohol and grain fed red meat. Seek more of an ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet reducing your intake of these foods and try to introduce a diet based on more fresh vegetables, ‘good fats’ (avocados, olive oil, raw nuts, seeds, oily fish) and good quality protein such as well sourced or free range chicken, red meat and eggs. Making your own raw vegetable juices is an excellent way for reducing internal inflammation.
- Magnesium: Magnesium can help to calm and relax the nervous system. Many people also take a suitable magnesium supplement several hours before they go to bed to help their sleep patterns. We suggest Magnesium Citrate as the best form of this mineral.
- Selenium & Beta Glucan 1-3 1-6 Supplements: Beta Glucan 1-3 1-6 is a natural nutrient and a powerful immune-priming nutritional supplement. Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan provides a role in activating the immune system, alerting the body to help defend itself against viral and bacterial invaders. The mineral Selenium has a range of benefits such as contributing to the normal function of the immune system and normal thyroid function. In modern life it is increasingly hard to get sufficient Selenium from foods alone; consider a Selenium supplement or a suitable multivitamin and mineral that includes Selenium.
- Chromium and Zinc: The mineral Chromium provides a role in the maintenance of normal blood glucose concentrations. When looking at Chromium supplements or multi-minerals we would suggest ‘Chromium GTF’ – GTF stands for Glucose Tolerance Factor and GTF is now being recognised as important in carbohydrate metabolism. Zinc is the second most abundant trace mineral in the body, being present in all tissues. Zinc has a wide variety of functions including the healthy functioning of the immune system. When looking at supplements you can also look at Zinc combined with Copper to prevent a possible risk of copper deficiency during long-term usage.
- Natural Nutrients and Herbs: Consider natural nutrients to increase the sensitivity of your cells to insulin – for example Gymnema (a herb from Sri Lanka), Aloe Vera Juice and Bitter Melon. All of these substances may improve the ability of glucose to enter your cells and give you energy, thereby reducing hunger and cravings.
You can have a blood test to measure your levels of cortisol. If you are concerned obviously you can speak to your doctor or a suitable qualified practitioner. Alternately please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time. I can also put you in touch with a nutritional practitioner in your area.
Links below to relevant Cytoplan Supplements: