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Managing Cortisol’s Ups and Downs

May 23, 2022

Cortisol gets a bad rap most of the time. Everyone wants to talk about the negatives of what cortisol does, but what often doesn’t get the recognition is the benefits that cortisol has for our body. Today I want to highlight both sides of the stress story so that when we are finished it will be clear on what happens when cortisol runs high and low, but also how to find that happy middle ground when cortisol can work its magic.

Cortisol is known as our stress hormone because it is the one that makes us jump up and take flight when there is danger. For this reason, it is part of our fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is also known as a glucocorticoid which is a type of steroid hormone that fights inflammation in the body and controls metabolism in our muscle, fat, liver, and bones. This steroid also plays a role in our sleep-wake cycles. 

This hormone is secreted according to our circadian rhythm with higher levels in the early morning and lower levels in the evening and then dropping off while we sleep. We will see cortisol peak in the morning to wake us up and get us moving. This peak will happen anywhere between 6 to 8 in the morning. Each person’s peak time is going to be different based on their body’s preference for waking and going to bed. 

Besides getting us moving in the morning, cortisol’s main job is to increase the glucose in our blood and store any excess in the liver for later use. A couple of ways that we can tap into these reserves is when we either haven’t eaten in a while or when we are exercising.  When this happens, we can actually feel ourselves getting that “second wind” and glucose kicks in to pump more fuel into our system to help carry us through the day. 

So, what happens when cortisol is not controlled and is allowed to run too high? Cortisol can get out of control and burn down the house when we don’t manage our blood sugars. When this is allowed to happen, a person is going to see weight gain, especially around the midsection. Their sleep quality is going to be disrupted and the important rest that is wanted will be just out of reach. Leaving them tired and wanting to go back to bed when their alarm goes off. Another thing about high cortisol is a person has a higher chance of having vitamin and mineral deficiency which causes problems all on their own. 

A person can only have high cortisol for so long before their level plummets and they are baseline at best. When this happens, and it is inevitable – a person is going to feel irritable, depressed, and tired. They are also going to have low blood pressure. Some diseases that are associated with low cortisol are Addison’s disease, hypothyroidism, hyperpituitarism, and low sodium and potassium. 

So now that we know that cortisol can either run high or low, how do we find that sweet spot to make it purr like a kitten? Tamed cortisol is just a good night’s sleep away. We want to make sure that we are getting 8 hours of restful sleep. This is done by not eating anything 3 hours before we go to bed and then allowing our bodies to digest for the remaining 12 hours before eating again. Also, turning off devices that have bright lights and stimulate our brains before bed starts our brains to unwind. Taking time to practice self-care, getting regular massages, spend time out in nature are all great ways to tame cortisol. The best way is through a balanced whole foods diet. Some foods raise our cortisol levels and speak directly to the stress that naturally seems to be a part of our lives now. Alcohol, caffeine, sugary treats, and processed foods are gasoline for the cortisol fire. But when we eat foods like avocados, chia and flax seeds, salmon, and fermented foods – now we are feeding cortisol the foods that the hormone likes and allows it to work in a healthy range. 

In today’s fast-paced life it is easy for cortisol to burn out of control and take other helpful hormones with it. And finding the balance between life and health can be a struggle especially when it seems as though everything in life is working against you. Here at Radiate Wellness, we like to work with our clients together to find balance both in their health and in their life. If balance and tamed cortisol sounds like something, you want to work towards then please call and book a Strategy Session with one of our team members. We would love to help slow the burn of cortisol and help you find balance in your life.   


Hi, I’m Frankie
Becoming a Functional Nutritionist was born out of my love of working in women’s health and my own health crisis that hit in 2011. It was then that I realized that the body cannot be taken for granted. With two cancer scares in one year, I decided to take my health into my own hands, guided by the intelligence of functional medicine. As a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner, I use data and mindfulness techniques to motivate change. My client relationships are filled with loving connections and precise planning.

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