You’re an ambitious woman who never slows down or takes a day off. Between work, side hustles, and caring for kids, partners, parents, and friends, there’s very little time left to care for you. And while ambitious women make moves and get shit done, all that hustle comes at a price, if you’re not careful. We’re talkin’ headaches, weight gain, anxiety, digestive issues, and sleep problems. And for that, we can thank (not really) cortisol.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way! There’s a lot you can do to regulate cortisol levels so you can feel great, no matter what life throws at you. But before we get into that, let’s discuss cortisol—what it is and how it works in your body.
What is cortisol?
You might be wondering, what even is cortisol? Sounds like a major B. And we totally get it—those symptoms are seriously the worst. But the thing is, cortisol actually has good intentions! Cortisol is our main stress hormone and is super important for our health. Like other hormones, cortisol is made in the adrenal glands. It plays an important role in blood sugar regulation, metabolism, memory function, and inflammation. (See, it’s not all bad!) Cortisol is also involved in your body’s natural stress response, helping you react to stress in ways meant to protect you in fight-or-flight situations like being chased by a bear.
In threatening situations, your hypothalamus alerts your adrenal glands to pump out cortisol and other hormones, causing your heart to beat faster and the glucose in the bloodstream to spike. Cortisol also shuts down nonessential systems (like your digestive and reproductive systems) so you can focus your energy toward springing into action and escaping the threat. When said threat goes away, your body calms down and hormone levels return to normal.
But it’s not too often you find yourself running from a bear, right. So why are our cortisol levels so damn high all the time?! Turns out there are tons of things that prompt the release of cortisol. An emergency email from your boss, screaming kiddos, misplaced car keys; It’s those everyday stressors that have us flooded with nonstop cortisol. It’s a classic case of too much of a good thing is a bad thing. A constant release of too much cortisol due to chronic stress leads to exhaustion, plus all of the aforementioned negative side effects like weight gain, headaches, and insomnia. Not to mention, high levels of cortisol can have a negative impact on your immune systems, leaving you vulnerable to illness, infections, allergies, and autoimmune disease.
Now onto the good news: You can manage chronic stress and regulate cortisol levels through simple lifestyle changes.
- Identify your stressors. Step one to learning how to manage stress is figuring out what sets you off. Everyone is different, so what situations trigger your stress response.
- Exercise—even a 20-minute walk—lowers cortisol levels and stimulates the production of endorphins. Find an exercise you genuinely enjoy and start (and stick to) a routine to keep stress levels at bay.
- Get those Zzzz’s! Getting plenty of sleep is huge for regulating hormones. Find your body’s natural rhythm so you can settle into a regular sleep-wake cycle, and aim for seven to eight hours a night.
- Meditation, deep breathing and yoga are proven ways to help you manage stress levels, as well as improve memory, boost heart health and reduce pain. We recommend committing to 10 minutes a day to start. Plus, meditation can temper the brain's emotional reactivity so you can remain calm and react effectively in stressful situations.
- Avoid overcommitting to things. It’s good to have a full and abundant life, but if you’re saying yes to every single thing that comes your way, then you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself. Think about ways you could simplify your life and your schedule. Do you really need to host that event again this year? Do you absolutely have to attend that function? Know that it is totally okay to say ‘no’ sometimes.
Breaking the vicious and unhealthy stress cycle can take time, but it is totally possible to unlearn patterns of chronic stress responses. With intention and practice, stress management will help you chill out and can even adjust your interpretation of life’s events so you can feel more relaxed and more in control.