Defining stress has been a challenging exercise for scientists, so for our purposes, we’re going with Merriam-Webster’s definition: “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” Cortisol is part of the complex biochemical system that plays a role in stress, and as we all know, stress plays a significant role in our sleep.
Welcome to Your HPA Axis
Scientists have identified a complex system in our body that operates with elements of our nervous and hormonal systems—our HPA Axis, which stands for hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. The hypothalamus and the pituitary in the brain, along with the adrenal glands on the kidneys, work together to regulate digestion, the immune system, and our mood.
As part of this system, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands in response to a stressor. Cortisol is the main chemical messenger that allows us to react to emergencies quickly, popularly known as our “fight or flight” response. However, as a hormone, it also participates in many daily functions in our body, including blood sugar levels, inflammation, heart function and blood pressure.
All of this relates to how we produce energy and how we feel on a daily basis. We run into trouble when our HPA Axis is activated on a regular basis, flooding our system with biochemicals that can take a toll on our body and our health. Chronic stress has been connected to many disorders and illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and—not surprisingly—insomnia.
Regular sleep consists of 90-minute cycles, and each cycle is made up of three phases. Cortisol follows our circadian rhythms, beginning to drop in the evening, bottoming out around midnight, and then increasing while we sleep to peak an hour after awakening. If we’re experiencing chronic stress, sometimes mini cortisol pulses overnight can align with those 90-minute sleep cycles, waking us up and resulting in fragmented sleep and reduced overall sleep times.
Due to the feedback cycle of the HPA Axis, cortisol interfering with sleep will unfortunately result in more cortisol during the day to compensate for poor sleep. And because it’s connected to the rest of the axis, everything else can start to unravel too. So what do we do?
In the case of cortisol, there are two options: prescription medications or natural remedies. The medications are only for serious medical conditions, come with a lot of unfriendly side effects, and should only be used under guidance of a physician.
Luckily, if you’re dealing with the effects of chronically elevated cortisol and stress, there are many tried-and-tested natural options to help take the edge off. Look for these herbal friends in teas, tinctures, and other natural remedies:
- Ashwagandha is a tried-and-true favorite for lowering cortisol.
- Rhodiola is a fantastic herbal ally for stress.
- Lemon balm is easy to grow in a garden and the bees love it!
- Chamomile…it’s a classic for a reason.
- Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, makes a delicious tea.
Lifestyle Hacks for Modulating Cortisol
Most of us are aware by now that our modern lives require some self-care and conscious maintenance, otherwise we’re risking illness and a decrease in quality of life. None of the following will be a surprise, but finding ways to integrate these into our daily rhythms will go a long way toward supporting our wellness.
- Exercise— Be sure to check in with your overall energy and stress levels first. If you’re waking up by alarm at 5:30 and hitting the gym before a frustrating morning commute…it could be contributing to your stress load. Consider swapping out a few days of walking, hiking, yoga, swimming, and other lower stress exercises for harder and longer workouts. If you’re not currently exercising, a sedentary lifestyle is also a stressor, so finding pleasurable ways to move your body is beneficial.
- Mindfulness— There are many different methods to choose from, find one that resonates with you and make it a daily habit: meditation, guided imagery, journaling, contemplation, prayer, mantras, hypnosis, breathwork. Some of our EcoWool® Meditation Pillow customers report that they feel a deeper connection with the Earth, so give it a try for a more grounded effect!
- Pets and Healthy Relationships— The hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin is known to counteract the effects of high cortisol, so be sure to get those cuddles! Whether from our fuzzy, finned, and feathered friends or from those we love, having connections that help us feel safe and cared about soothes us and resets our system.
- Aromatherapy— Studies have shown that several essential oils can reduce cortisol levels and calm stress. Try lavender, rosemary, neroli, and bergamot.
- Healthy Diet— You knew this was coming…good nutrition really is the cornerstone of every wellness goal there is! Because cortisol is involved with insulin regulation, focusing on healthy protein sources and making sure to eat every 3-4 hours is key for not stressing your body. Cortisol and the HPA Axis are responsive to many minerals and nutrients, so let’s learn more.
A Cortisol-Friendly Diet
In the case of cortisol, the things we do every day really count. What and how we eat can be either stressful or stress relieving. While we can also supplement for many of the below nutrients and minerals, getting them from food ensures that they are bioavailable, and it’s more affordable and enjoyable too. Dark chocolate as a health food?! Sign me up!
- B Vitamins— For the meat eaters, go with beef, chicken, and organ meats like liver and kidneys. Eggs are a great option. B Vitamins are tough to source outside animal foods, but a good veggie alternative is nutritional yeast.
- Omega 3s— Fatty fish really deliver here: anchovies, salmon, oysters, herring, mackerel, tuna, sardines. From the plant kingdom, look for avocados, olive oil, walnuts, and chia seeds.
- Magnesium— This is a delicious list: avocados, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and spinach. These foods are particularly effective at dinner. For even more relaxation, add good ol’ Epsom salts to your pre-bedtime bath.
- Probiotics— A healthy gut helps modulate cortisol. Fermented foods like Greek yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha can help digestion.
Some foods and drinks can actually contribute to higher cortisol levels, so steer clear of:
- Simple carbohydrate foods
Speaking of alcohol, stay tuned for the next installment of our Healthy Sleep Series, where we’ll discuss how alcohol affects our sleep. In the meantime, try our Magic Melatonin Mocktail [LINK] as a nightcap!