Friday, December 21, 2012

Cortisol, Stress, Diet and Your Body

A friend texted me last night to say that her cortisol levels came back as exceedingly high and wanted to know what (if anything) diet could do to bring this back into balance. I love a good challenge, and the minute I heard "cortisol" I thought "stress" and given her busy life, high-responsibility job, being a mom, wife and it being the holiday season it made perfect sense. Instead of just sharing it with her, I thought this would be a great place to talk about the connection between cortisol, stress, diet and your body.

The Basics:
Cortisol is the hormone that is released when your adrenal glands are stimulated due to stress. Oftentimes we think of stress as external (my boss is yelling at me! I'm stuck in traffic! I've got a flat tire! I'm LATE! These kids are driving me nuts!) yet up to 40% of stress we experience is dietary (caffeine, refined sugars, saturated fatty foods, fatty meats, sweet desserts, lack of quality food). The average person experiences about 22 external stressors daily in addition to the internal stress placed on our body by nutritional choices, and often they are interrelated. Take a look at this day:

  • You sleep through your alarm because you didn't sleep well last night and get going late.
  • Your kids are fighting in the car.
  • You grab a coffee (double shot) and a packaged muffin on the way.
  • You get cut off by somebody while taking them to school.
  • You show up to work (late) and already there's an issue.
  • Your boss calls you into his office and tells you that you cannot take time off over the holidays.
  • So you cancel your family trip and your family is upset with you.
  • You skip lunch since you are bogged down with work.
  • You have another cup of coffee since you're beat!
  • You leave work to pick the kids up, then take them to soccer.
  • You have no time to workout since you have to get home and make dinner.
  • You throw a packaged family dinner in the microwave to get the kids fed and tucked in ASAP.
  • You sit down to unwind with the TV, treat yourself to a glass of wine (or two) and dessert.
  • You're up until 11:30 pm even though the alarm goes off at 6:00 am meaning you'll only get 6.5 hours of sleep (but you never do since you usually have struggle falling and staying asleep).
Does that sound like anyone you know? Day after day your body is under attack. Each time you are stressed, your body reacts in a "fight or flight" manner and releases cortisol into your blood stream. 

What Does Cortisol Do?
As cortisol increases:
  • Your body switches to burning carbohydrates (for quick energy) instead of fat, leading to a build up of fat in the body.
  • Your immune system function decreases leaving you prone to illness.
  • Your inflammation levels rise also leaving you prone to illness
  • You turn to dietary crutches (sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine) and your dependency increases
  • Your sleep quality and quantity decrease, leaving you more prone to stress.

What Can YOU Do?
1.) Find BALANCE

  • work, home, diet, exercise, sleep, play, family


  • Cortisol levels rise and metabolism slows within 5 hours since the last meal.

3.) Exercise REGULARLY

  • Just 15-30 minutes 4-5 days a week will help do a few things - exercise trains your body to respond efficiently to cortisol (so that you don't hit fight or flight), it releases dopamine + seratonin so that you feel good instead of stressed.


  •  8-9 hours a night. Every night. 
  • Prepare for bed by turning the TV and iPhone/iPad devices off for at least a half hour before bed. 
  • Wind down with herbal tea, meditation, journaling, or stretching. This signals to your body that it can begin to unwind and your body will naturally get on it's cycle of decreasing cortisol at night to allow sleep. 
  • Watching an emotional or action packed TV show before bed? Does just the opposite.

5.) Healthy, Balanced DIET

  • Whole, unprocessed complex carbohydrates. Take out the white junk (refined sugar, refined flours, refined milk).
  • Give your body the fuel it needs to feel good and provide you with the energy you need.
  • Lean protein slows down carbohydrate absorption, decreases blood sugar levels and balances cortisol. Healthy unsaturated fat cuts down on cortisol production. Vegetables and fruits provide you with necessary minerals, vitamins and fibers.
  • Adaptogens - try a food source of an adaptogen - a metabolic regulator that helps your body adapt to stressors. Two of the more easily found adaptogens are maca root (a cruciferous root vegetable from Peru) and Goji Berries. Try adding a serving of these to your food daily. The maca root works well in shakes or baked goods and the goji berries are delicious in trail mix or on a salad!


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