What’s the importance of cortisol, and why would you care to regulate cortisol naturally?
Well… If you’re suffering from chronic fatigue, you might care a lot.
Fatigue and the HPA-axis
There’s a good chance that you’re experiencing something called HPA-axis dysfunction (sometimes referred to as adrenal fatigue). HPA-axis stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and it is the system in our body that responds to stress. Not surprisingly, HPA-axis dysfunction kicks in after prolonged stress. This often leads to your adrenal glands over- or under-producing cortisol.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that helps us heal from injuries and controls inflammation… unless there’s too much, or too little. Either too much or too little can send your body’s hormones, inflammation, and immune system out of whack. That’s what we call HPA-axis dysfunction.
(We discuss HPA-axis dysfunction in more detail here.)
The good news is HPA-axis dysfunction is treatable, and fatigue doesn’t have to be the end of the story. There are several great ways to regulate your cortisol levels naturally, so you can begin to get your energy back.
Your natural cortisol curve
Cortisol production happens in your adrenal glands. The adrenal glands secrete cortisol in a circadian rhythm, meaning it follows our internal 24-hour clock. When well-balanced, you will have high cortisol levels in the morning to help wake up. Your cortisol levels then slowly taper in the afternoon and evening, so you sleep well. Salivary testing at four different times of the day allows your doctor to see what your individual cortisol curve looks like.
In my practice, I find people at various stages of adrenal fatigue, often relating to how long they have lived with high levels of stress. For some, cortisol is elevated throughout the day, or low all day, or has a zigzag pattern, or spikes at night instead of the morning.
The good news is that simple diet and lifestyle changes can help restore a normal cortisol curve. Whether you’ve been told you need to raise or lower your cortisol levels, all these practices will be healthy and helpful.
These small lifestyle changes remind your body when cortisol should be high (in the morning) and low (at night).
Regulate your cortisol levels naturally with these 9 tips
1. Practice self-care and reduce stress.
Cortisol is a stress hormone. Therefore we cannot talk about natural ways of regulating your cortisol levels without discussing how they got there. When your cortisol levels are out of balance, it suggests your stress levels are out of balance.
The best way to lower your cortisol levels naturally is to destress. Think through your day and where you experience stress. If it’s out of your control to change the situation, then consider finding ways to help you manage the stress. Reduce stressors where you can, and practice a little self-care.
What helps you destress? Is it a hot bath or yoga? How about taking a walk or reading that book you keep putting on the shelf for later? Take care of yourself, and find ways of reducing stress.
2. Focus on daily movement.
Daily movement, rather than strenuous exercise, is important. Big workouts can deplete you even more when you are already exhausted. Alternatively, walking, yoga, and stretching can all rejuvenate you. A daily routine of gentle exercise will help your cortisol levels get back into a healthy curve.
3. Incorporate exposure to natural sunlight.
Natural sunlight (even in cloudy skies) first thing in the morning and during the day helps regulate cortisol levels. A morning boost in your cortisol levels will help your energy and mood.
4. Maintain regular bedtimes and wake-up times.
This includes weekends. To help your circadian rhythm get back into the swing of things (and therefore your cortisol levels), you’ve got to create a rhythm to your days that you maintain all the time. A little wiggle room is fine, but don’t get in the habit of staying up three or four hours past your usual bedtime and then sleeping until noon on the weekends.
5. Avoid artificial light in the evenings.
Artificial light (especially blue light) from TVs, phones, and computers disrupts your circadian rhythm and will reduce melatonin production (the hormone that tells your body it’s time to sleep). Messing up your circadian rhythm makes you feel tired and messes with your cortisol curve. Avoid all blue light at least 1-2 hours before bed.
Most phones, computers, and tablets can be set to night mode, which removes the blue light. Or even better yet, avoid using screens all together before bed and do other relaxing activities.
6. Sleep in a completely dark room.
You want lower cortisol levels and higher melatonin levels at night so you can sleep. Even small amounts of light in your bedroom can affect your cortisol and melatonin production.
Get rid of the chargers, alarm clocks, or whatever else is flashing small lights into your room. Black-out curtains can be a good investment if you have a lot of artificial light coming in through your windows. Any light while you sleep will alter your natural cortisol curve. Turn the lights off and enjoy the sweet darkness of night time.
7. Don’t skip meals or eat at irregular times.
Keep your blood sugar stable by eating regularly timed meals. Particularly make sure to include a protein-rich breakfast. Skipping meals causes extra stress on your adrenal glands. A drop in your sugar levels will also cause additional feelings of fatigue.
8. Eat balanced meals.
Balanced meals include:
- protein, (fish, poultry, meat, beans, nuts)
- healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds)
- high-fiber carbohydrates (vegetables, including dark leafy greens, whole grains, beans).
Avoid refined carbohydrates (white breads, pasta, and processed foods) and added sugars. They will cause your glucose levels to spike and crash, which contributes to more fatigue and weight gain.
9. Avoid caffeine.
While it may seem like a good idea to get a jolt when you’re feeling fatigued, caffeine leads to energy crashes later in the day. It can also affect your sleep. If you are already hooked on caffeine to get through the day, I recommend slowly weaning down while increasing adrenal support herbs and nutrients in order to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Chronic fatigue isn’t normal or healthy
Most importantly, don’t give up. When lifestyle changes don’t appear to be sufficient, you may need a little extra. For example, you might need to consider adding adaptogenic herbal supplements to your daily routine.
Whatever you do, don’t believe the lie that on-going chronic fatigue is the price tag for life. It’s not.
Chronic fatigue tells us something is wrong.
If you think you may be struggling with HPA-axis dysfunction (commonly called adrenal fatigue), book an appointment with me or one of my colleagues. From the comfort of your home, we will help you work through your individualized treatment plan to regulate your cortisol levels.