10 Easy Steps To Manage High Cortisol And Stress

Are you like many of the women that I meet through my practice who want help with their diet because they are feeling exhausted, depressed and anxious? Do you have a plethora of symptoms, none of which seem serious enough for a visit to the doctors office but which often boil down to one thing? – STRESS-

Have you lost your mojo and are you concerned about low libido? Are you asking yourself ‘Has menopause arrived this early for me?’

Are you not sleeping well and do you see the symptoms of this in memory loss and brain fog. The question I hear from clients is….’Do you think I might be at risk of Alzheimers disease?’

Are you worried about gaining weight as you are experiencing cravings for sugar and carbs? Women who feel that their weight gain is out of their control ask me ‘Could there be something wrong with my thyroid? I am piling the pounds on’

Do you have aching shoulders and tense muscles? Are you feeling old, exhausted and are you putting this down to age? I hear about this scenario all the time….’What can I eat to get my energy back? I am on the floor exhausted in the afternoon and evening’ 

When we get down to the root cause of all of these symptoms stress and chronic elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol are often to blame.

Cortisol is our fight or flight hormone and as it is a ‘survival’ hormone. It is the one that the body will manufacture first if it considers us to be exposed to any sort of danger. For women like us, modern life results in elevated cortisol levels as we cope with crazy schedules, balance work, home and family and even assimilate the unrealistic images of female/motherly perfection around us.

Cortisol is manufactured in the adrenal glands and whilst it is a positive hormone in small doses, the long term effects of elevated cortisol levels can be extremely ageing. 

Cortisol is a hormone stealer! Stress will cause the building blocks of ‘juicier’ hormones such as estrogen to be used to manufacture cortisol for a fight or flight response. This leaves you feeling low and off especially as you approach menopause. Think low libido, a lack of energy and none of your sexy mojo girlfriend!

Cortisol has a natural daily rhythm and is elevated in the morning to help us to rise and shine on the daily. Elevated cortisol levels due to stress cause this natural rhythm to be disrupted. This can leave you ‘tired but wired’ and unable to sleep at bedtime but sluggish and hugging  the covers when the alarm goes in the morning.

Chronic elevated cortisol levels take a toll on brain function. I am talking actual  damage to brain cells and premature ageing of the brain. This manifests as fuzzy thinking or brain fog.  You know the feeling of walking into a room and forgetting why you are there? Do you ever search for a word to finish a sentence but when you rummage through your brain you are not able to find it?

When we are in full on fight or flight and cortisol levels spike. Stuck in traffic and late for an appointment or four coffees into a to do list as long as your arm then the frontal lobes of the brain actually shut down and register zero activity.

At times like this we lose our capacity to execute higher level emotional thinking. We find ourselves leaning over the back seat of the car screaming at our kids or tearing into our significant others for failing to take out the trash! It’s the midlife equivalent of a toddler tantrum ladies! Not pretty.

Elevated cortisol levels can also make us feel anxious on the daily, leaving us checking and second guessing ourselves and worrying about what other people are thinking.

On an evolutionary level, when cortisol levels spike and the fight or flight response is triggered glucose is released into the bloodstream. In this way we can battle a sabre toothed tiger or run from a warring stone age tribe.

In the modern world we silently fume in our cars over stationary commuter traffic or sit in our cubicles stressing over a work related debacle. We have no way of burning off this excess sugar in the bloodstream and it gets laid down as fat around our liver and our middle so it can be easily accessed during our next drama. This often results in the midlife muffin top we all know and love and means that no matter how hard we try to lose pounds, stress and cortisol is hormonally sabotaging our good intentions. 

Stress and raised cortisol levels will also stimulate the appetite and encourage us to consume more calories.  You may find yourself craving carbs, sugar laden treats, croissants and doughnuts as you reptilian brain equates an abundant food source with safety.

When you find your self spending the majority of your time in this highly stressed cortisol driven state, your blood pressure becomes raised and it is ageing and damaging for your vasculature and hear, putting you at risk of heart attack and stroke.

That is a lot of bad news right there! But I hope you get my message ladies, high cortisol levels and living life in a highly stressed state is something to take stock of and turnaround through easy and delicious diet and lifestyle changes. 

Luckily have created an ten point plan for overcoming stress and helping you to step into a life of zen even when the shiitake hits the frying pan!

  1. Eat More Healthy Fat! Healthy fats are anti-inflammatory. They manage our inflammatory response and have the ability to improve the ‘communication’ between all cells in the body as they improve the flexibility and responsiveness of the phospholipid cell wall. Healthy fats provide fuel for our brain cells and are critical in the outer coating of most nerve cells. Adding more fat into your diet helps to reassure your brain that you are being adequately nourished. Fat helps to bring satiety to the body and prevents the stimulation of hormones that promote hunger. Fat also helps to balance blood sugar levels in the body as it provides a steady energy and not the spikes and crashes your body experiences with sugar. More fat in the diet enables your brain, your blood sugar levels and your inflammatory response to find a calm state. One way you can kick unhealthy inflammatory fats out of your diet and introduce more healthy anti-inflammatory fats is to make your own salad dressing weekly. I have five excellent and easy recipes here. I also have recipes for healthy-fat-rich, brain-fuelling, stress-busting snacks here, here and hereCacao, Coconut, Healthy Fat, Sweet treat
  2. Eat Your Greens! Leafy Greens and vegetables are packed with magnesium, our anti-stress mineral. Magnesium is the ‘iron’ of the plant world and is present in chlorophyll, the green pigment of plants the way that iron is present in our own blood. Magnesium is a natural tranquilizer as it relaxes the skeletal muscles in the body as well as the smooth muscles of the vasculature and intestinal tract. Low levels of magnesium in the body have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and heart attack so getting a daily dose of greens can be very protective to your cardio vascular system. Make the effort to eat a large green salad daily……and I don’t mean iceberg! (Make sure to add some dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables into your salads), or make a batch of green juice weekly that you can grab and go each day. Dark leafy greens are not only rich in magnesium but also rich in vitamin C to support the adrenal glands and contain a surprising amount of omega 3 fatty acids for a healthy brain and nervous system. You can also start where I started and add four bunches of fresh herbs, basil, cilantro and parsley, to your shopping cart to add green to your food on a weekly basis weekly. I have great salad recipes here and here and delicious green juice recipes here and here.Vibrant, Health, Kale, Salad,
  3. Check Your Sleep Hygiene! Hmmmm, now we all know that stress can cause insomnia and prevent us from sleeping, but there is also research that demonstrates that those who are sleep deprived experience greater stress in their everyday lives. Push comes to shove, then adequate sleep is going to help you deal better with the stress in your life. Sleep hygiene practices can give you the advantage of getting a better nights rest. Put down your computer and stay away from screens after 7pm at night as the blue spectrum light emitted by these electronics prevents the secretion of melatonin, our sleep hormone. Aim to get to be at least an hour earlier than your usual bedtime so that you do not feel rushed, have time to unwind and make time for self care during the evening. Moisturize your body with coconut oil, read a book, give your hands and nails a little TLC or soak in a warm candle lit bath. All of these simple tasks create a feeling of wellbeing as you head off to bed.
  4. Start The Day Right! It is important when you are experiencing stress to fuel your body adequately for the day. Unfortunately many of the breakfast options that we all enjoy on the daily spike blood sugar levels and put our bodies under further metabolic stress as our energy spikes and crashes throughout the day. When we feel chronically rushed and overwhelmed it is not always intuitive to us to make the extra effort for ourselves; we are spread so thinly already, but this is the time that we need to make an extra effort in the morning and set ourselves up to fuel our bodies for the best day. In an ideal world you will be fuelling yourself with a low sugar, protein and healthy fat rich breakfast every day. Eggs anyway you choose to make them are perfect and luckily I have some excellent recipes for an ideal breakfast, two of which you can make ahead here, here and here.Egg, breakfast, weight loss, brain health, fuel, nutrient dense
  5. Cut Out Caffeine And Alcohol! In my previous life I relied heavily on caffeine and a glass of wine at night to get me through extremely busy and stressful times. Little did I now that I was only draining my tanks further and depleting my body. Alcohol and caffeine both mess with the blood sugar balance and deplete the body of magnesium the anti-stress mineral. Caffeine induces the fight or flight response in the body and so only increases stress. Alcohol, whilst giving you the good feels at the time of drinking actually contributes to depression which is not what you need when you are stressed. Both these brain stimulants disrupt healthy sleep patterns, both are addictive and both put stress upon the liver to metabolize and remove from the body. Switch to caffeine free herbal tea. Liquorice Tea is recommended as it actually cuts the amount of the hormone cortisol in the body and I have recipes for delicious health promoting teas here and here and a celebratory cocktail here.making (12 of 21)
  6. Indulge In Dark Chocolate and Raw Cacao! Now here is a bonus. Raw cacao and good quality dark chocolate are perfect treats for world weary warriors. Both have been shown in clinical trail to boot the level of serotonin in the brain. But we knew this didn’t we?….. Chocolate increases levels of our happy hormone! Dark chocolate and cacao is also rich in the relaxation mineral magnesium so there is another boost of this anti-stress mineral whenever you indulge. If you want to include more chocolate and cacao into your diet try these treats here, here and here……and perhaps the most popular recipe on my blog, Sugar Free, Grain Free Chocolate BrowniesValentines Day
  7. Change Up Your Exercise Routine. Hands up if your solution to weight gain is to exercise harder, faster and for longer? I’m guilty… and to be fair this worked for me whenever things were easy breezy in my life. But when stress kicked in, no amount of exercise could prevent me from piling on the pounds. In this situation you need to know that less is more. 6 am spin classes and early morning running only serve to elevate cortisol levels through the roof at a time of day when they are already raised. Evening Zumba classes or strenuous weight lifting in the gym at night again only boosts cortisol at a time when the body expects it to taper down for a good nights rest. When you are stressed and life is busy exercise can help but try switching it up by choosing a challenging but ‘non-stress-amplifying’ form of exercise such as pilates, ballet barre, hot yoga or rhythmic African Dance. All of these options work the body without elevating cortisol and triggering a fight or flight response. If you do want to continue with spin cycle or running then try and exercise mid morning or early afternoon when cortisol will have the opportunity to regulate without ruining your nights sleep. Elite athletes buffer the rise in their cortisol with vitamin C and so think leafy greens again and taking a supplement would be something to consider.
  8. Defend Your Personal Boundaries. When you feel yourself spending the majority of your day in a highly stressed state or are feeling  completely overwhelmed, then it is time to ‘play the princess’, jump on the NO! train and start to fiercely defend your boundaries. This can be as simple as reinforcing your new sleep hygiene rules with family to turning down invitations to volunteer or take on a large project in the workplace. As women we are often programmed to be the good girl and we can find it difficult to say no….guilt can kick in at this point. But it is okay even for just the short term to ask for help, take a nap during the day on the weekend, delegate a couple of routine chores to an able family member (get hubby to make you those delicious chocolate brownies!) and even just let things slide so that you can bounce back with your batteries recharged. 
  9. Drink Bone Broth! Bone broth made from organic chicken or beef bones simmered for up to 12 hours provides vey deep nutrition for a stressed out body. It is highly healing to the digestive tract, which contains more nerve endings than any part of our body apart from the brain, and bears the brunt of our stress. We have the common phrases, ‘butterflies in my tummy’ and ‘sick to my stomach’ as a part of our language, which clearly describe the gut/ brain connection. Bone broth is also very mineral dense as the long cooking process draws calcium, phosphorous, silica, sulphur and other trace minerals out of the bones. All of these minerals are fuel for your adrenal glands which are responsible for pumping out cortisol and managing the flight or flight response. Tired adrenal glands leave you feeling completely drained and with a level of exhaustion it is hard to rebound back from. Bone broth can be found at the health food store and at Farmers Markets. Buy a two or three containers and make it a staple of your diet for a couple of weeks to refuel and recharge. I Have recipes for using your bone broth here and here and you can just sip a cup full of the warming, salty broth on a daily basis.Bone Broth
  10. Support Yourself With Supplements! One of the easiest ways to help yourself out when stressed is to supplement your body to cope better with all that is going on in your life. I have put together a little supplement regime that will help you to boost your energy level and feel zen in the short term.
    1. 1000mg fish oil capsule containing Omega 3 EPA and DHA 3 x daily with meals. To calm a fired up nervous system and support brain health.
    2. Vitamin C 100mg 1 x daily. To buffer cortisol and support the adrenal glands.
    3. Full Spectrum VitaminB complex 500-600mg daily. Take in the morning. To support brain function.
    4. Rhodiola 100mg 2 x daily with breakfast and lunch. Rhodiola is an adaptogen. Adaptogens are a group of herbs which mimic our natural and state hormonal responses in the body and bring the body back into balance. Rhodiola is hugely helpful in combatting stress.
    5. Magnesium citrate or malate 500mg before bed. To relax tense muscles at bedtime.

Of course my first line of defence for any health concern is food and I would advise you to include salmon and more leafy greens into your diet as a source of omega 3 fatty acids and I have a great recipe for a High Vitamin C Smoothie here.

Stress, Vitamin C, Adrenals

If you are feeling completely tired and exhausted these 10 steps might in themselves look overwhelming to you. Remember, they do no have to be accomplished all at once! Pick out the action that is easiest for you to achieve……is it buying supplements? Can you source bone broth and include it into your daily routine? Is it easiest for you to make a batch of green smoothie and be set up each day for a week with your leafy greens? Is it time for your to start prioritizing breakfast as a more nourishing meal in your day? Do you recognize that you should be turning the bedroom light out earlier each night or that maybe you need to break up with caffeine?

Pick the action you will find easiest to take and that will have the most impact for you. Then you can move on down the list. Vibrant health is a journey and not a race!

If you require support in boosting your energy level or feel that you health issues go further then do not hesitate to contact me for a free discovery call to find out how I can be of service to you. Here’s to your most vibrant, glowing and energetic self!



Legal Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace medical advice or diagnosis from your family practitioner, specialist or medical doctor. The recipes advice and articles consist of nutritional and lifestyle advice as the sharing of information to support a healthier body.

Louise Innes

Author: Louise Innes

Louise Innes is a holistic nutritionist who resides in Calgary, Alberta. Her balanced take on nutrition brings a refreshing perspective to the world of food.

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