Stress. I hear you, I’m no stranger to the word! Demanding and busy times in my life over the years have certainly caused the stress hormones to kick in. Untreated high stress hormones drive many acute and chronic health conditions, including multiple hormone imbalances. Think skin, weight, cycle, energy and mood challenges, just to name a few.
So what should you do about it?
Awareness is the first step. Knowing you’re stressed is easy, but then taking action to overcome the stress, build your resilience towards it and help to lower the production of your stress hormones, often fall by the wayside. So let’s dig into what starts the stress response off and what you can do to build resilience against the rising stress hormone production of cortisol.
The stress hormone regulation occurs via your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, also known as the HPA- Axis. The HPA-Axis refers to the communication between your hypothalamus and pituitary glands in your brain, with your adrenal glands. It’s the crucial feedback between these glands which controls the stress response in your body, amongst managing your energy levels, digestion, immunity, moods, emotions, memory and metabolism. This happens via secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters, including cortisol.
Cortisol production starts with the hypothalamus gland in your brain triggering your pituitary gland via corticotropin- releasing hormone (CRH). In response, your pituitary gland releases the hormone messenger called adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce the stress hormones cortisol, DHEA and DHEA-S. Once the stress is over, feedback is sent back to your brain to slow the production of CRH and ACTH and therefore normalise cortisol synthesis.
THE NORMAL CORTISOL PATTERN
Other than the production of cortisol from your adrenal glands in response to stress, levels are naturally released at higher amounts via your HPA-Axis, in the morning. Cortisol should peak 30-60 minutes after waking to support your energy levels, but production should gradually decrease over the day, to eventual low levels at night. This enables the sleep hormone melatonin to kick in and promote a restful night’s sleep.
HIGH CORTISOL LEVELS
When you’re in a state involving heightened stress hormones, the body will divert energy away from your state of ‘rest, digest and reproduce’ to concentrate on surviving the perceived stress by putting you into a state of fight or flight. This initial surge of cortisol should normalise soon after, providing you with steady energy and allowing blood flow to return to the reproductive and digestive systems.
When stress is ongoing and your adrenal glands become frazzled and fatigued, small stressors such as an email arriving in your inbox can be enough to put you back into the state of fight and flight. Over time, you remain in this hyper-stimulated adrenal state with high cortisol levels and your digestive, reproductive, immune health and metabolism suffer.
Stress surrounds us and is to some extent, a normal part of life. When exposure to this stress causes an inadequate or prolonged response however, health issues may arise. If stress is ongoing, your cortisol levels remain higher for longer and contribute to the condition of adrenal gland stress. Among experiencing anxiety, insomnia, oily skin, sugar cravings, mid-section weight gain, other symptoms linked to adrenal gland fatigue can be found here.
Overtime higher cortisol levels also place a strain on your adrenal glands and cause further hormone imbalances with your thyroid and sex hormones.
HOW YOU CAN BALANCE YOUR CORTISOL LEVELS
To offset the stressors of a demanding day, I have some favourite practices that I follow to build resilience, balance my cortisol levels and in turn nurture my adrenal glands.
- GROUND YOURSELF
The simple act of walking barefoot on the grass, dirt sand during a relaxing beach walk, is enough to soothe a heightened stress response. If you can score some sunlight exposure in the morning (free from sunglasses) at the same time, this will also help to promote a healthy circadian rhythm and therefore a restful sleep at night.
- HAVE NATURE CLOSE BY
Even if it is just a few small indoor plants, having them nearby helps to cleanse the air and contributes to nourishing negative ion exposure. If you have the room, get your hands dirty in the garden and feel proud as your new seeds and seedlings flourish.
- EMBRACE YOUR INNER CHILD
Lift your mood by enjoying some outdoor play time, trampoline like your 7-year-old self would, dance around the kitchen to your fav 90’s mix, or let your worries drift away while you express your creativity through art.
- DISCONNECT, TO RECONNECT
Put some boundaries in place to limit your technology time. Put your phone down, shut the laptop and share a funny story or joke with your loved ones. Laughter really is the best medicine.
- PRACTICE MINDFULNESS
Learn to meditate, deep breath, practice tai chi, attend a yoga class, go for a surf or just be fully appreciative of the present, wherever you may be. Focus on being in the moment, relaxing your body, resting your mind and allowing your adrenal glands to recover.
Spilling your thoughts down on paper has many positive health benefits. Journaling either first or last thing helps you to express any suppressed emotions, allows healthy reflection of your day and clarity around your future goals.
- PRACTICE GRATITUDE
When you introduce gratitude into your day, you will feel blessed for the real meaningful moments and people in your life. You will start to love and appreciate the small things and realise there is always an opportunity to grow and learn from every misfortune, misunderstanding, mistake and tragedy. Start your day by listing 3 things you are grateful for and watch your smile grow.
- SURROUND YOURSELF WITH POSITIVITY
Being around people who create negativity and comparison can fuel unhealthy cortisol patterns. Surround yourself with individuals who inspire, support, uplift you and feed your soul. Also tune out to the negative news bulletins and dramatic movies and tv shows- these can seep into your subconscious & stress your vulnerable adrenal glands. Instead fill your mind with positive, empowering information by listening to educational podcasts, or encourage your happy endorphins by tuning into comedy or your favourite tunes (cue 90’s mix)
Further guidance for supporting balanced cortisol levels, including nutritional and herbal supplementation recommendations are found in my latest book: Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones. You can pick up a copy here.
CONTROL YOUR CORTISOL
Controlling your cortisol levels is an important step to achieving balanced adrenal, thyroid and sex hormone balance and function. By introducing small but regular diet, lifestyle and supplementation practises into your daily routine, it is possible to outweigh the unhealthy stressors in your life. Give them a go and embrace the calm, relaxed and joyous moods this brings.
What’s your favourite way to reduce your stress levels?
Love, health & happiness,
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Kasey Willson is an Adelaide based Naturopath, Nutritionist, Author & Speaker. Kasey educates women to take control of their health to experience balanced hormones, thriving digestion and vibrant energy. You can gain her support through her recent released book Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones, her educational blog, My Health My Happiness and popular online program, the Vibrant Woman Challenge.