It’s January and the holiday madness is finally finished! Unfortunately, many of us are left with a holiday hangover that lingers into the New Year. Food and alcohol are common culprits but the emotional stress of the holidays is not often highlighted. Of course, we hear about the blanket-term “stress” and it’s effects all the time, but we don’t often hear WHY it’s behind most holiday hangovers and how connected it is to our reproductive health.
The hormone player in most stress-related conditions is cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands during times of stress, which is the reason it has been dubbed the “stress hormone.” The body needs cortisol to power through demanding situations, whether it’s dealing with hectic schedules and difficult bosses or family gatherings and holiday parties! Unfortunately, many of us over-produce this hormone due to unrelenting stress in our professional and personal lives.
There are two key points about a healthy stress response that need to be emphasized: First, it takes priority over all other metabolic functions in the body and second, it wasn’t designed to last very long.
Our ancestors used this response to escape life-threatening situations like running from wooly mammoths! Their adrenals would release cortisol, which would immediately increase their heart rate and blood pressure, release energy stores for immediate use, shut down digestion and other secondary functions, and sharpen their senses.
Thousands of years later, our bodies still respond the same way, except nowadays we’re most likely just sitting in traffic! In the past there would be acute moments of stress followed by periods of rest but today we are in a constant state of chronic stress. It’s the exact opposite of how our bodies are supposed to function.
Cortisol is great in the short term to help us deal with a perceived threat, but can have a detrimental effect on the body in the long term. This is because cortisol has three main jobs:
- It raises blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run or fight)
- It raises blood pressure (so you can get out of a threatening situation)
- It lowers immune function (as well as shuts down digestion and reproductive organs – basically any bodily function that isn’t necessary to survive).
As you can imagine, this may lead to a whole host of problems for a person who has chronically high levels of cortisol. These include:
- Insulin resistance or diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol (remember it raises our blood sugar and blood pressure)
- Digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and acid reflux
- Reproductive problems like infertility, reduced sex drive and painful periods (cortisol is a hormone and when it is disregulated, it causes other hormonal imbalances)
Symptoms & conditions associated with dysregulated cortisol:
- Inability to maintain steady energy levels throughout the day – Reliance on carbs/caffeine
- Fatigue (lack of energy in the morning, even after a full nights sleep)
- Tired but wired feeling, poor sleep (difficulty winding down or staying asleep)
- Brain fog and forgetfulness – ADD, scattered thoughts, inability to focus on a task for long
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome, estrogen dominance and other conditions of hormonal imbalance
- Fertility issues – difficulty getting and staying pregnant
- Weight gain in the mid-section – the dreaded muffin top
- Low stamina for stress, and easily irritated, high anxiety, panic attacks
- Poor immunity; high incidence of colds and flu; chronic infections (bacterial, viral, yeast)
- Dry, unhealthy skin with excess pigmentation, adult acne
- Lack of libido or no libido, cystic breasts
6 Practical Steps to Manage Your Cortisol Levels:
Practice forgiveness. I recently read a quote that said, “Holding a grudge is letting someone live rent-free in your head.” Nuff said right? What’s the point of re-living anger and resentment over and over? All it does is perpetuate the stress cycle that you’re trying to rid yourself of. Start small, maybe with the jerk who cut you off in traffic – release any hard feelings and put your focus on the positive things happening in your day.
Reduce your light at night. Too much light at night actually stimulates your adrenals to produce more cortisol to keep you awake. This prevents you from being able to wind down and sleep properly. Here’s what to do. After 9pm turn off as many lights in your house as possible. Do light candles, they make everyone look pretty and they’re sexy too. Give yourself a laptop curfew, this means no laptops in bed. That bright screen is keeping you up at night.
Practice saying “probably not or no”. Women are programmed to over-commit, over-provide and people-please, often at the expense of our own health and adrenal function. This week when someone asks you to do something that you know will stress you and your adrenals, practice saying “Probably not…(pause), but let me think about it.” No guilt allowed!
Walk barefoot on the earth. Feel the power of “earthing” via walking bare foot on the sand, earth or grass. This resets the adrenal glands and normalizes cortisol. Our bodies’ electrons become frazzled by the harmful electromagnetic fields emitted by man-made products such as computers, phones, hair dryers & home appliances. I find that I sleep better at night after walking on the earth, especially the beach. No wonder Dr. Weil calls dirt “the new Prozac.”
Support yourself nutritionally and consider food allergies. Eat regular meals, especially breakfast, which include high-quality protein, whole grains and good fats. Properly timing meals to prevent dramatic dips and spikes in blood sugar minimizes cortisol output and also gives you more sustained energy throughout the day. Food allergies actually raise cortisol so if you suspect a gluten or dairy allergy try eliminating them and pay attention to any changes or improvements in your health.
Reduce or cut out caffeine and sugar. This is tough for many people but think of this: both caffeine and sugar stimulate your adrenals to produce cortisol. In addition, both of these substances do a double whammy on the body by raising both cortisol and blood sugar levels. This keeps us on a roller coaster of blood sugar lows and highs that we can’t seem to escape. Take baby steps and wean yourself off of these elements slowly. Try Dandy Blend coffee substitute and use honey and stevia in place of sugar.