Stressed? Can’t Sleep? Essential Steps To Balancing Your Cortisol Levels
Written by: Kavata Kithome
Before we dive right into it, here is a short story.
Recently I took some extra hours at work and was pulling in 12-hr shift per day, 5-6 days a week. The only things I did were work and sleep and if I remembered and was not too tired, maybe ate something. After week three of this madness, I didn’t know if I was coming or going. It was brutal.
I am willing to bet that a lot of us live our lives this way. But living this like disrupts our rhythm. Not the bust a move kind of rhythm, but our cortisol rhythm. And without a firm rhythm in place, we can feel out of balance.
Most of us know cortisol as a stress hormone. But did you know that, along with adrenaline, cortisol is one of the main stress response chemicals produced by the adrenal glands? It is responsible for maintaining the health of and proper communication between every cell in your body.
When it is in a healthy rhythm, cortisol is highest in the morning to give you energy to get your day started and keep inflammation low and your immune response at its peak. It is naturally lowest before bed, allowing you to wind down into a rest-and-repair phase.
When this natural “diurnal” cycle is disrupted, you can end up with:
- Sleep problems (insomnia, waking in the night, waking up tired in the morning)
- Hormonal imbalances
- Anxiety and depression
- Blood sugar and metabolic problems (including sugar cravings, metabolic syndrome, PCOS and diabetes)
- Weight challenges
- Decreased memory, focus and willpower
- Immune system imbalances, leading to more frequent infections, reactivation of old viruses, allergies, inflammation and even autoimmune disease
In fact, most long-term chronic health problems can be traced to disturbances in the natural cortisol pattern. Health issues like obesity, diabetes, digestive problems and even cancer have been linked to disturbances in cortisol rhythm.
During the last few weeks, my cortisol rhythm was out of sorts and I felt the effects for sure. Resetting my cortisol rhythm was one of the most important steps I took to feel balanced and ensure long term health again.
So here it is, everything you need to reset your cortisol rhythm.
The good news is that resetting your cortisol rhythm doesn’t require any fancy foods, crazy diet plans, supplements, or exercise regimes. It’s actually shockingly simple. It does, however, require a commitment to reclaiming rhythm in your life. But anything worth having takes work and commitment, doesn’t it?
Here are six simple steps to resetting your cortisol rhythm and with it, your adrenal stress response:
#1. Reset your sleep schedule.
If you have been reading my articles or listening to my recent videos, you know that I love my sleep. This is because it is the ultimate pause you need at the end of every day; it’s impossible to reset your internal clocks without good quality and enough quantity sleep. Here are a few good reasons why:
1. Cortisol regulates the production of melatonin, which is important not only for sleep, but also for detoxification and immunity.
2. Elevated cortisol actually suppresses melatonin, increasing your risk of not only sleep problems, but also inflammatory conditions, ranging from diabetes to dementia and cancer.
3. When your sleep is disrupted, it tends to aggravate other symptoms, for instance, your sugar and carb cravings go up, your energy and focus go down and so does your immunity.
How much sleep do you need?
Here’s the magic number: I’ve found that I need at least seven hours of good sleep every night to reset cortisol rhythm. When you sleep, your brain processes the knowledge, memories, information and cellular waste that accumulates in it during the day, as does your body. So for those that believe you can sleep when you are dead, think again!
Is bedtime and wake time important?
The simple answer is … ABSOLUTELY! Paying special attention to a regular sleep cycle that has you waking and going to bed at roughly the same times each day is critical to helping reset your cortisol levels. Aim to waking up by about 7:00 a.m. and getting to bed between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.
How can you get to sleep more easily?
I believe that one of the biggest disturbers of getting to sleep is fiddling with electronic devices in the hour before bed. I believe a digital detox an hour before you sleep can really help you wind down. Reading a real book (you know, one with pages?), taking a hot bath, journaling, meditating and even having sex are some other things you can do to help you get to sleep more easily. So nix the smartphones, Kindle, TV and iPads.
And what if you work nights?
This is a tough situation, because working nights is inherently harder on your adrenals. But don’t fret, there are things you can do to protect yourself:
- Get extra sleep before your shift. I know that sounds wonky, but a phenomenon called sleep banking (sleeping ahead to store up on rest) can help prevent exhaustion and physiologic consequences from missed sleep.
- Eat well on the job. Eating nutrient dense foods overnight can keep your cortisol leveled and the unhealthy calories off.
- Using adaptogenic herbs has shown to offset the stress on body and brain during night-shift work.
- Make time to decompress when you get home.
#2. Follow the light.
Did you know that the light spectrum is a part of what helps keep your cortisol levels balanced? Your cortisol rhythm is anything but colorblind!
- Bright natural sunlight in your eyes in the morning can reset your morning cortisol cycle, which in turn resets your energy, mood and mental clarity all day long.
- If you can’t get natural light in the morning because of your work schedule or where you live, you can try light box therapy. Try to get natural light exposure by sitting near a window when you work. And then follow with the digital detox in the evening.
- You can take it a step further by setting your phone into a “night shift” setting to make sure that blue light is not emitted, or download blue-light-blocking apps like f.lux or bluelight filter to help offset the negative effects of looking at your electronic screens late at night.
#3. Eat the right foods, at the right time.
I have talked about my transformation in my previous articles and how I suffered from leaky gut. That was in part because of a low carb diet. While a low carb diet may sound like a weight-loss winner, a very low carb diet can actually increases your cortisol and worsen the likelihood of putting on belly fat.
I found that I benefited from eating a small healthy carbohydrate choice three to five hours before going to sleep to help create a healthier cortisol pattern while improving sleep, which is definitely a win-win for me. Healthy choices include a serving of:
- Whole grain brown rice or quinoa
- Serving of sweet potato
- Winter squash
- Potatoes (baked or roasted)
It is important to note that eating within three hours of bedtime can impair both sleep and cortisol, but skipping meals also has a negative impact on cortisol.
#4. Reset after work and before dinner.
I find that relaxing and rebooting mentally and emotionally after a hard or long workday leads to healthier cortisol levels and better sleep. Make it a weekday end-of-work habit to decompress for even just 15 minutes with a favorite activity when you get home from work.
My personal favorite things to do are to scream as loudly as I can in my car on my drive back home after work and doing very deep breath work while in the shower. Pick whatever works for you, some great choice are:
- Brisk walk
- Yoga session
- Spending time with your kids
- Playing with your pets
#5. Avoid caffeine and alcohol later in the day.
Hey, I get it, a great cup of coffee can be one of life’s pleasures. However, caffeine, including from green tea, chai and chocolate, can keep you up at night. So doing a caffeine detox after noon can really help reset your adrenals.
Like coffee, wine – particularly red for me – is just one of the gifts that keeps on giving. But I found that when I detoxed from alcohol, my sleep improved dramatically, particularly my ability to stay asleep and feel refreshed in the morning. For me, great sleep is enough for me to give up my favorite noir for a while.
#6. Eat clean.
Chronic inflammation is huge trigger of cortisol imbalances. In addition to the blood sugar balance, processed foods, poor-quality fats and a high-sugar diets can cause inflammation that can lead to chronically overactivated cortisol production. Cleaning up your diet so you’re only getting real, healthy, low-inflammatory foods can do wonders for your adrenal reset.
When your cortisol levels are out of sorts, it can present a myriad of issues like trouble sleeping, anxiety and weight problems that can be a nuance and tough to bear. The good news is that there is so much you can do from nutrition to exercise to lifestyle and the 6 steps outlined above are a great place to start. Eat, sleep and live in a way that supports your body’s endocrine systems. You deserve it!
What do you do to keep your cortisol leveled? Share your formula in the comments below, we would love to hear from you.
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Kavata Kithome is an advocate for living your best life, full of health and longevity. While working closely with gym owners and personal trainers, she was able to sculpt a well-rounded view of fitness and understands how to incorporate it with a healthy balanced diet. She is a regular contributor to the One More Step Lifestyle brand.
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