Cortisol is essential to health. Our bodies normally produce cortisol throughout the day in a cycle—more in the morning as we wake, less in the evening to prepare us for sleep—to support our daily physical and emotional well-being. But when cortisol levels become higher or lower than normal for prolonged periods, that wellbeing can be severely compromised.
When we’re chronically stressed, our bodies maintain excessive levels of cortisol throughout the day. After months or years, elevated cortisol can cause serious problems across the body’s many systems. It can also lead to a suppressed HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, formerly known as adrenal fatigue, where one can produce too little cortisol, which brings its own set of challenges and may require a variety of therapies to resolve. But by learning how to balance cortisol levels naturally and seeking the right care when needed, you can enjoy a calmer and healthier life.
How Cortisol Functions in the Body
While many people are concerned with lowering the amount of cortisol in their body, the truth is that a healthy balance of this hormone is necessary for optimal health—and can actually be lifesaving in the right circumstances. That’s because cortisol’s main job is to help fuel your body’s “fight or flight” response. When you encounter a dangerous situation, your adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream. Your blood pressure rises, enabling your “fight or flight” response and prepping your body for immediate action. Your blood sugar also increases to provide immediately available fuel for your muscles. After the threat passes, your cortisol levels go back to normal and homeostasis returns.
The trouble comes when constant stress causes our cortisol levels to remain elevated above a natural baseline. This can cause a variety of symptoms that can be quite uncomfortable and compromise your quality of life.
The Symptoms of Cortisol Imbalance
In today’s modern high-stress world, high cortisol has become an increasingly common health concern. When high cortisol becomes a chronic issue, symptoms can include:
- Weight gain (particularly near the belly and face)
- Depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Severe fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Acne and face flushing
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thin skin (frequent bruising)
In the most severe cases, elevated cortisol can contribute to obesity, infertility, bone loss, and insulin resistance leading to type 2 diabetes. The good news is that a combination of diet, lifestyle changes, and medication (when needed) can often help get your hormones back on track. It’s important to note that the remedies mentioned here are commonly recommended to those who experience symptoms from excess cortisol due to lifestyle stress rather than a medical condition.
It’s also critical to mention that after prolonged exposure to elevated stress, HPA axis suppression can cause the body to produce too little cortisol, which also disrupts healthy function. Symptoms of HPA axis suppression/adrenal fatigue include:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Brain fog
- Food cravings
This condition is usually mild and can typically be treated using the same strategies as you would use to address high cortisol. The goal for both conditions is to balance.
How to Balance Cortisol Levels in 6 Steps
Whether you’re currently struggling with symptoms of elevated cortisol or you’re experiencing HPA axis suppression due to a stressful lifestyle, the following steps can help you naturally balance your cortisol levels and find calm vitality once again:
1. Reset your circadian rhythms
We all know good sleep is paramount to good health. One reason sleep matters so much is that it involves the fluctuation of and connection between melatonin and cortisol, two hormones directly related to stress and overall bodily health. Practice healthy sleep habits by sleeping and waking at the same time each day, striving for at least 7 hours of uninterrupted rest, and limiting electronics use in the hour(s) before bedtime. Also try to get plenty of sunshine in the morning and at midday to further stabilize your body’s circadian rhythms.
2. Reduce alcohol and caffeine use
While many adults use alcohol to wind down at the end of a long day or in social situations, alcohol has been found to significantly increase cortisol levels in both men and women, particularly those who drink heavily. Caffeine does the same, creating a temporary but dramatic increase in blood pressure and related symptoms of anxiety. If you’re struggling with cortisol imbalance, steer clear of these substances and give your body the chance to recalibrate on its own.
3. Try an anti-inflammatory diet
High levels of cortisol cause an increase in blood sugar, which can be exacerbated by a diet full of sugar and processed foods. An anti-inflammatory diet rich in vegetables, healthy fats, and other whole foods can help your body maintain stable blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of developing diabetes or obesity.
4. Supplement your diet
A diet rich in micronutrients from whole foods can provide the necessary foundation for balance. But it’s possible for your body to require greater concentrations of certain nutrients than can be found in food. Supplements including vitamin C, vitamin B5, fish oil, magnesium, adrenal adaptogenic herbs, and Rhodiola have shown some promise for reducing cortisol levels. Consult your practitioner before adding any supplements to your diet (even those that are over the counter) to make sure they won’t interfere with other medications or treatments you may need.
5. Start a healthy exercise habit
Research shows that acute aerobic exercise reduces the cortisol stress response in the brain and helps improve cortisol levels. This is one of many scientific explanations for why exercise helps relieve stress and promotes overall health in the mind and body. Start a healthy habit of moving your body in a way that you enjoy—through dance, jogging, lifting, yoga, or some other practice. Still, be careful not to overdo it. Overly intense exercise without adequate nutrition and recovery time can actually result in elevated cortisol in the body.
6. Prioritize relaxation
Mindfulness is more than just a buzzword. Disrupted cortisol levels make it nearly impossible to relax, and we know that rest and relaxation are two of the most crucial practices we rely on for overall health. Mindfulness practices like meditation, massage, and deep breathing have been proven to reduce cortisol levels. These are not just “extras” on the path to wellness—relaxation practices are absolutely necessary for reducing cortisol in those who experience chronic stress. Make them a priority.
Hormone Therapy Can Help Treat Cortisol Imbalance
Cortisol imbalance is becoming a more prevalent diagnosis as more and more people struggle to balance busy professional, family, and social lives. Our lives show no signs of slowing down—and until we’re able to manage stress in a healthy way, we will continue to struggle with this significant hormone imbalance on a grand scale. If you’ve tried the steps explored above without seeing a significant change in your symptoms, it may be time to seek help from a qualified expert in hormone health.
The practitioners at BodyLogicMD are certified experts in integrative medicine and are focused on helping patients like you achieve optimal wellness through a combination of nutrition, lifestyle changes, and bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. When you partner with a BodyLogicMD practitioner, they perform a complete assessment to understand your symptoms, analyze your cortisol levels, and craft a treatment plan that’s fully customized to your unique situation. Whether your cortisol levels are high or low, they can give you the treatment support you need to take back control of your wellbeing.
If you’re struggling to figure out how to balance cortisol levels on your own, it’s time to consider a professional option. There’s no need to suffer with hormone imbalance. With modern holistic treatment, you can regain the health and vitality you once enjoyed, free from the symptoms of chronic stress.
BodyLogicMD is a network of highly qualified hormone health practitioners who are passionate about helping people live healthier, more balanced lives. Whether you’re struggling with the symptoms of excess cortisol due to stress, medication, or another medical condition, your BodyLogicMD practitioner will be able to provide valuable counsel and prescribe a fully customized hormone medication regimen, should you need one. With the right support, you’ll learn how to balance your cortisol levels naturally and start addressing your symptoms in a holistic way that promotes lasting wellness. Contact a local practitioner today to get started, or take the BodyLogicMD Hormone Balance Quiz to learn more about how hormones like cortisol impact your daily life.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. All content on this website is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended diagnose, treat, cure or prevent diseases.
Charlotte is a patient care coordinator specializing in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. She is committed to helping patients who struggle with the symptoms of hormonal change and imbalance explore their treatment options and develop effective strategies to optimize wellness.