Stress Less: The Science Behind Cortisol

  • Hannah Aylward
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Stress Less: The Science Behind Cortisol

by Hannah Aylward


Cortisol is the stress hormone. It is made by the adrenal glands along with other hormones including norepinephrine, epinephrine, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and aldosterone. In times of stress, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to tell the adrenal cortex to release cortisol. When there is enough cortisol, the hypothalamus and pituitary stop communicating, and cortisol levels decline.


Let’s get this straight, the thing is, we need cortisol to survive. Cortisol stimulates the liver to convert amino acids into glucose, increases fatty acid metabolism, helps fight inflammation and allergies, prevents loss of sodium in urine, helps us wake up and get out of bed in the morning, maintains resistance to stress, and can help us focus and stay calm. However, most of us are running around with far too much of it in our systems or even too little, if it has been chronically elevated for too long due to chronic stress. Many of us rarely actually turn off. Enter - the cell phone. It keeps us connected, constantly. According to new research, Americans check their phone on average once every 12 minutes, connecting and allocating energy to this device 80 times a day.


When cortisol is not in balance, it can lead to weight gain, low libido, headaches, anxiety, depression, low energy, insomnia, blood sugar issues, skipped menstrual periods, gut issues, cardiovascular disease and more. Cortisol is a huge part of our body's "fight or flight" response, which is activated in times of high stress like running from a tiger. When this stress response is triggered, our bodies divert blood flow to ensure we can escape a dangerous threat. However in modern days, this stressor has shifted from a tiger to inflammatory and processed foods, lack of sleep, a full inbox, unhealthy relationships, suppressed emotions, emotional stress, and chemicals in the environment.


Chronic cortisol production keeps our bodies in "fight or flight" mode and forces us to de-prioritize bodily functions like digestion, menstruation, and rest. High cortisol negatively affects the thyroid, the hippocampus (an important part of the brain that deals with memory), increases insulin release (the fat storage hormone), raises estrogen levels, and increases weight gain.


The reality is your hormones are directly tied to the rest of the body. If you are having hormonal imbalances to any degree, you are almost guaranteed to have many other health complaints.


Ways to Manage Cortisol


Aim to get at least 7½ to 9 hours a night, specifically within the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Maintaining a regular bedtime helps cortisol drop to a point where an optimal amount of melatonin is produced, helping to ensure a good night’s sleep.


A gut-healthy, blood-sugar balancing, nutrient-dense diet filled with vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, fiber, and high-quality protein is the way to go. Make it a point to increase your intake of healthy fats and probiotics, as well as decreasing/omitting sugar, processed carbohydrates (these turn into just more sugar), and caffeine.


Prioritize yourself. Make sure to take the time to practice meditation, even if it is for 5 minutes.

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Exercising is an incredibly powerful and beneficial habit to get into. However, when cortisol levels are high, it’s best to keep it to lower-impact, more gentle and fluid forms of movement like yoga, pilates, and walking.


This does not have to mean Instagrammable nights with rose petal baths, $100 face masks, and candlelight. This means doing something for you, that helps you restore, recover, and feel good. This can be as easy as listening to your favorite soundtrack while laying on the couch for 20 minutes, taking 10 minutes to focus on your breath, reading a chapter of your new book, or taking time to sip some herbal tea without multitasking. Epsom salt baths are another simple and effective way to manage cortisol due to the fact that they are rich in magnesium.


There are a number of supplements that can help lower cortisol. These include:

  • Phosphatidylserine, an amino acid derivative that is highly prevalent in the neural tissue of humans, has been said to lower cortisol levels and keep it under control during periods of stress.
  • Magnesium, the fourth most abundant mineral in your body, is used in over 300 bodily reactions. It helps calm your nervous system and prevents the creation of excess cortisol. There are many different forms of magnesium out there, so it can get a bit confusing. Try magnesium glycinate as it is the most bioavailable and least likely to send you to the bathroom.
  • Holy basil is an adaptogenic herb, helping to promote a healthy stress response. It contains ocimumosides which are beneficial for reducing cortisol and glucose and improving neurotransmitter balance.
  • B vitamins, especially B12, B9, and B6, are also imperative in modulating our stress response.


Cortisol levels can really creep up on us and affect both our physical and mental health. Try taking time to slow down, breathe, and nourish yourself with the right foods to balance your cortisol levels. You’re worth it.


Hannah Aylward

Hannah Aylward is a Certified Health Coach, nutrition consultant, fitness instructor, healthy living expert, and founder of HAN. She helps both men and women around the world lose weight, heal skin disturbances, balance hormones, heal gut imbalances and feel at home in their bodies through healthy eating, movement, mindfulness and positive self-talk. Her goal is to help others “learn the tools that they need to live the lives they deserve”. Get to know her by visiting her website and following her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo by Leighann Renee on Unsplash