Why Women Need to Understand How Cortisol Affects Their Health

Mar 13, 2022 | Health and Wellness, Hormones, Women's Health

By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP

Balance is the key element when it comes to cortisol, a hormone produced in your adrenal glands. Cortisol performs many vital functions, including:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Metabolizing glucose
  • Assisting with circadian rhythm regulation
  • Formulating memories

Many of these tasks contribute to cortisol’s role in controlling the “flight or fight response.”  When your body senses danger, cortisol kicks in with the physiological responses that enable you to either flee the danger or fight it. Your heartbeat increases, blood flows to your major muscle groups, your nervous system is on hyper alert – all thanks to cortisol and other hormones like adrenaline. In this state of emergency preparedness, even the clotting ability of your blood increases, in case of injury. To create a fast supply of energy, you metabolize carbohydrates faster.

From an evolutionary perspective, these responses made a lot of sense. Long ago, stressors were often direct threats requiring a fast physical response, one that still serves us well in certain stressful situations.

Now, however, much of the stress in modern life is chronic stress, and we have much more sedentary lives. The cortisol our bodies release in times of stress isn’t necessarily required to initiate a physical response.

How High Cortisol Levels Affect Women

As a result of our more sedentary and stressful lives, many women suffer from an imbalance in their cortisol levels. An excess of cortisol in the body can lead to many troublesome symptoms, including:

  • Hypertension
  • Irritability
  • Weight gain, particularly in the belly and upper back
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems
  • Indigestion
  • Insomnia
  • Low libido

For menopausal women, these symptoms can be particularly pronounced. Cortisol levels rise at the end of menstruation, exacerbating menopausal symptoms at what is already a difficult time achieving hormonal balance. This is one of the main contributors to a frequent complaint among menopausal women: excess belly fat.

In menstruating women, excess cortisol can lead to painful, heavy, or absent periods. When estrogen is lowered from continuous stress and cortisol production, all the female hormone imbalance symptoms such as night sweats, sleep problems, and mood swings can get worse.

3 Key Steps to Balance Cortisol Levels

1 – Eat for success

A healthy diet is one of the most effective ways to regulate cortisol levels. Start by implementing these habits into your daily meals.

  • Reduce sugar and simple carbs. Studies show that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar raises cortisol levels. Somewhat paradoxically, a high-sugar diet can also make your body less efficient producing cortisol when in a stressful situation.
  • Drink lots of water. When you’re dehydrated, your cortisol levels rise.
  • Focus on fiber. The gut microbiome influences hormone production. A healthy microbiome requires high fiber intake, in order to stimulate the production of “good’ bacteria in the microbiome,
  • Choose omega-3. The anti-inflammatory qualities in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce cortisol levels. Foods high in omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon, flax and chia seeds, and nuts like walnuts.
  • Fermented foods for gut health. Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut help contribute to healthy bacteria levels in your gut, which helps regulate hormone production.  

2.  Supplement smartly

Supplements that reduce inflammation and improve gut health can support lower cortisol levels. Some to consider include:

  • Fish oil. Boost your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with high quality fish oil supplements.
  • Ashwagandha. Adaptogens like ashwagandha help your body cope with stress by lowering cortisol production.
  • Chamomile. Tea made with chamomile has been a relaxation treatment for centuries, and new studies suggest it may reduce cortisol levels.

Taking any new supplementation should be discussed with a healthcare practitioner to make sure it’s the right fit for you. We can help you with a personalized wellness plan tailored to your needs.

3. Reduce daily stress

Chronic stress contributes to problems with cortisol because your body is in a constant state of alert. However, reducing stress is often easier said than done. Focus on coping mechanisms to help address the way you respond to stressful situations.

  • Get enough sleep. It’s frustrating – when we’re tired, we produce more cortisol, but that cortisol also keeps us awake! This creates a seemingly endless cycle of exhaustion. Focus on creating a relaxing nighttime routine, including a regular bedtime and a restful sleep environment. Avoid alcohol, screens, large meals, and intense exercise before bed. You want to associate sleep with peace.
  • Spend time in nature. It’s a prescription that has stood the test of time. Being outside lowers your stress responses, including cortisol production. It doesn’t have to be an epic hike – just taking a walk through the neighborhood on a busy day helps.
  • Work on your relaxation responses. Meditation, yoga, and breathwork all condition your body to deal with stressful thoughts while minimizing their physical impact.
  • Be careful with the company you keep. Ever notice that some people are inherently stressful to be around? Although positive social relationships can improve our responses to stress, negative relationships create a sense of chronic stress that isn’t good for your cortisol levels. And, don’t limit your reach to human companionship – studies have found that positive interactions with pets can lower cortisol too!

If you recognize any of the signs of high cortisol levels, it’s time to take a proactive approach to managing your response to stress. Let us know if you would like to have your cortisol levels checked or want to learn more about controlling cortisol levels and improving your overall health!

Sources:

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