“You can do anything but you can’t do everything.”
There are certain times of year when we feel especially stretched – financial, emotionally, time-wise, etc. And during the holidays seems to be one of them. And I totally get it! There’s plenty of reason to be stressed.
And while it may seem easier to just sink into the chaos and marinate in the crazy until the new year, you will enjoy the season more (and feel better) if you take a few small steps every day to support your body. And more specifically, support your stress hormones.
Especially the big guy…cortisol.
What is cortisol & why do we need it?
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid steroid hormone released by our adrenal gland (which sits on top of our kidneys). It is a primary hormone in our stress response and here’s the kicker, its protective. We need it. We need it so much that almost every cell in the body has a place for cortisol to come and do its magic. It serves many protective functions, but here are a few of the big ones:
- Stabilizes our blood sugar
- Reduces inflammation and regulates parts of our immune response
- Plays a role in controlling blood pressure
- Keeping us energized
- Promoting mental clarity and memory
- Preventing brain fog
- Empowering our fight or flight response
I mean, let’s give this hormone a round of applause, right? Life or death stuff right there.
What happens when cortisol is out of whack?
So more is better right?? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Our bodies like things nice and balanced. So more is not more when it comes to cortisol.
In fact, when your body is releasing cortisol from high levels of stress or chronic stress it thinks its perpetually in fight or flight mode. Making other functions like reproduction, digestion, and immunity non-essential for immediate survival.
High cortisol levels can be signaled by:
- Weight gain
- Increased anxiety or irritability
- Issues with fertility
- High blood pressure
- Poor skin health
- Sick more often
And over time, chronically elevated cortisol levels can be taxing to the adrenal glands which may end up secreting sub-optimal levels of this essential hormone. This condition is termed by functional medicine practitioners as adrenal fatigue. Which has its own set of symptoms like chronic and debilitating fatigue, depression, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, to name a few.
Moral of the story: We’ve got a Goldilocks situation here. We need cortisol. Not too much. And not too little. But jusssst the right amount.
What can you do to support a healthy cortisol level?
For many of us, when we are stressed is when our wellness seems to get put on the back burner. We’ve gotta stop that. Because when you are stressed out, that is the EXACT time to be upping the ante on your self-care. And it doesn’t have to be all or none. Small amounts every day can have profound impacts. Take a look at the strategies below and pick one or two to implement this season.
- Get to bed! Please, for the love of all that is good, prioritize sleep. Set a bedtime and stick to it. This is one of the most powerful choices you can make to stabilize the body during times of stress.
Real life strategy: Put an alarm on your phone in the evening that says, “Get to bed young lady!” to remind yourself to wind down and go to bed. Seriously. I know you are an adult and all but you need sleep, and more than usual when you’re stressed.
- Take time to breathe. Simple but so important. Create presence and build in simple moments of stress relief.
Real life strategy: Use an app – like Calm, Headspace, or Stop, Breathe & Think – to lead you in a 2-5 minute guided meditation.
- Limit your intake of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Waa waa waaaaaah! (cue the sad face emoji). My sincerest apologies on this one. Sugar throws off already wonky blood sugars, caffeine further stimulates already over stimulated adrenal glands, and alcohol can mess with blood sugars AND tax the adrenals.
Real life strategy: Have a Sunday-Thursday boundary – try as best as you can to make these days caffeine-, sugar-, and alcohol-free. OR choose one and have 50% less than you normally would on an on-going basis. Caffeine is a great place to start!
- Make time for purposeful, joyful movement. Exercise has been shown to build stress resilience. It essentially trains the part of our nervous system that controls our stress and relaxation response. The more this system is trained, the faster our body returns to relaxation in times of stress. Amazing, right?? But the key here is to choose a form of movement that brings you joy and that isn’t overtaxing to the body. All of those grueling and competitive workouts can drive up those cortisol levels even further during times of stress.
Real life strategy: Need to meet up with friends and get your workout in? Kill two birds with one stone and meet up for a class, walk, or yoga sesh. Even getting a few minutes of fresh air with a walk outside with a friend can do wonders.
- Limit your exposure to “energy robbers.” Identify situations, people, and activities that are draining to you. Maybe being a couch potato actually makes you feel sluggish, or that one friend who uses you to dump all her negativity, or working more than one night per week. Take two minutes to think about what your “energy robbers” are and come up with ways to minimize them.
Real life strategy: Set time parameters around how much time you can spend with certain people. Be upfront with the time that you need to leave so no one is surprised when you duck out of a party or gathering early.
- Balance your meals and snacks with healthy fat and protein. These nutritional building blocks are essential for adrenal gland recover, ultimately helping you be more stress resilient.
Real life strategy: Choose one or two healthy go-to snacks to have on hand to take the guesswork out of snacking, especially when you are stretched for time and energy. Some good go-to’s include:
- Up your intake of adaptogens. What are adaptogens? They are foods that naturally lower cortisol levels. Found in herb and supplement form as well as in many teas, the following are great adaptogens to incorporate on a daily basis: ashwagandha, holy basil, licorice root, and ginseng.
Real life strategy: Have a cup of tea containing any of the adaptogens listed about while working on holiday projects or as a means of winding down before bed.
Cheers to a happy, healthy & energized holiday season!
- Wilson, J. L. (2014). Adrenal fatigue: the 21 century stress syndrome: wath it is and how you can recover your energy, immune resistance, vitality and enjoyment of life. Petaluma: Smart Publications.
- McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. NY, NY: Avery.
- Axe, J., Dr. (n.d.). Get Your Cortisol Levels Under Control & Turn Down the Stress. Retrieved December 6, 2017, from https://draxe.com/cortisol-levels/