Social media is no stranger to viral wellness topics taking over feeds, but the latest trend dominating discussion surrounds the wellbeing benefits of cortisol balancing.
Cortisol, most commonly known as the stress hormone, is produced and regulated in adrenal glands located near the top of the kidneys. These glands affect both the central nervous system and the endocrine system.
Experts say the hormone can help:
your body respond to stress or danger
increase your body’s metabolism of glucose
control blood pressure
Having the right cortisol balance is essential for your health, and producing too much or too little cortisol can cause various health problems.
"High levels of Cortisol is said to link to being anxious a lot of the time, stuck in fight or flight mode, back pain and headaches," explains mental health and anxiety specialist, Cai Graham.
"Your body is stiff, you don't sleep well or if you do, you're still tired in the day, you carry more weight around the belly area and on your face, brain fog, you catch colds and infections easily, you crave a lot of sugar, you have a lower libido and bad gut health."
It's little wonder therefore, that with 1.2 billion searches for cortisol balance/control/lowering on TikTok, cortisol balancing is having a moment.
"Cortisol, the stress hormone, does a lot in our bodies. But when it gets out of balance, it messes with our minds and bodies," Graham continues. "Knowing how to keep it in check is key for staying healthy and happy."
What happens to your body when cortisol levels are regulated?
In a balanced state, cortisol follows a natural rhythm, peaking in the early morning to help kickstart the day and gradually decreasing throughout the evening.
"This balance is essential for energy regulation, metabolism, immune function, and maintaining a healthy response to stress," Graham explains. "When cortisol levels are within the appropriate range, the body can effectively manage daily challenges without falling into a chronic state of stress."
Triggers for high levels of cortisol
According to Graham several factors can contribute to higher cortisol levels, disrupting its natural rhythm:
Emotional stress: Chronic stress, whether from work, relationships, or other sources, can lead to sustained elevated cortisol levels. "Finding healthy outlets for stress, like talking to friends or practicing relaxation techniques, can help manage emotional pressures," she adds.
Caffeine and stimulants: Having too much caffeine, especially in the morning, can cause cortisol to shoot up, messing with your body's natural daily rhythm. "Consider limiting caffeine intake and opting for herbal teas or decaf options for a more balanced energy level throughout the day," Graham suggests.
Overexercising: Intense and prolonged physical activity, especially without adequate recovery, can contribute to elevated cortisol levels. "Ensure you give your body enough time to rest and recover between workouts to avoid putting undue stress on your system," Graham advises.
Poor diet: High sugar and processed food intake, along with nutritional deficiencies, can impact cortisol regulation. "Opt for a nutrient-dense diet with a variety of whole foods to provide essential vitamins and minerals for overall wellbeing," Graham adds.
How to get the body out of a constant state of stress
To break the cycle of chronic stress, Graham says it is crucial to create an environment that signals to the body that it's safe. There are a number of measures you can introduce including:
Mindfulness practices: Incorporate mindfulness, meditation, or deep-breathing exercises to promote relaxation and reduce the impact of stressors. "Taking a few moments each day to focus on your breath can make a significant difference in calming your mind," Graham advises.
Adequate sleep: Graham advises prioritising quality sleep to support the natural circadian rhythm of cortisol production. "Ensure your sleep environment is comfortable, minimise screen time before bed, and establish a consistent sleep schedule for a restful night," she adds.
Balanced nutrition: Consume a well-balanced diet with whole foods, rich in nutrients, and avoid excessive caffeine and refined sugars. "Nourish your body with a variety of colourful fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to provide the essential nutrients it needs to cope with stress," Graham explains.
Regular exercise: Engage in moderate exercise that supports overall health without overexertion. "Incorporate activities you enjoy, whether it's a brisk walk, yoga, or dancing, to make exercise a positive and sustainable part of your routine," Graham adds.
Adaptogenic herbs: Graham advises incorporating adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha or rhodiola, which can help the body adapt to stress. "Additionally, alternative practices such as yoga or meditation can also be effective in promoting relaxation and reducing stress," she adds.
Relaxation techniques: Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery to activate the body's relaxation response and reduce cortisol levels. "Taking a few minutes each day for these techniques can contribute to a sense of calm and wellbeing," Graham explains.
Hydration: It is important to stay adequately hydrated, as dehydration can contribute to increased cortisol levels. "Drinking enough water supports overall bodily functions, including the regulation of stress hormones," Graham says.
Social connection: Cultivating strong social connections, as supportive relationships can positively impact stress levels. "Whether through in-person interactions or virtual means, maintaining connections with friends and family provides emotional support and helps alleviate stress," Graham advises.
The link between hormone imbalances and mental health
Hormone imbalances, including cortisol dis-regulation, can significantly impact mental health.
"Chronic stress, often associated with elevated cortisol, is linked to conditions like anxiety and depression," Graham advises.
"Addressing hormone imbalances through lifestyle changes, stress management, and, if necessary, medical interventions can play a crucial role in improving mental wellbeing".
Graham says understanding the interplay between hormones and mental health underscores the importance of a holistic approach that considers both physical and emotional wellbeing.
"Incorporating practices like regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet further supports overall mental health and hormonal balance," she adds. "In conclusion, ensuring balanced cortisol levels is pivotal for overall health and wellbeing."
By gaining insights into the triggers for elevated cortisol, Graham says we can proactively implement stress-reducing strategies such as mindfulness practices, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet.
"Embracing a holistic approach that integrates these lifestyle changes not only positively influences hormonal balance but also provides robust support for mental and physical health, reinforcing the interconnected nature of our wellbeing."
Read more about mental health:
How cosmetic surgery when you’re young can affect your mental health (Yahoo Life UK, 4-min read)
Talking mental health: What to say when someone's struggling, according to experts (Yahoo Life UK, 8-min read)
Why getting enough sleep is important for mental health, as study shows link between sleep and depression (Yahoo Life UK, 4-min read)