11 Ways To Get Cortisol Under Control
“The breath is one of the simplest and most effective ways to work with your nervous system, which helps regulate involuntary body functions like heart and breath rate, blood pressure, digestion and the immune system. When we feel stress in our environment, our sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones throughout the body, causing the heart to beat faster and your breathing rate to increase, also pushing blood into your muscles – this is the body preparing to fight or flee. We can use the breath to reverse this response. As shallow, upper chest breathing is part of the typical stress response, we want to be focusing on consciously activating the diaphragm (the primary breathing muscle) in order to return to a calm state. Diaphragmatic breathing involves contraction of your diaphragm, expansion of the belly and the slowing of your inhales and exhales.” – Fini Cooper, female breath coach & founder of The Breath Way
Never Skip Breakfast
“Cortisol patterns should mirror our circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning and levelling out at night. However, although the body is clever, it can’t differentiate between emotional and physiological stressors. Skipping meals, calorie restriction and inappropriate fasting can all increase cortisol levels. During periods of stress, prioritise a nutrient-dense breakfast and eat at regular intervals throughout the day. At the same time, avoid eating on the run, which can exacerbate your fight-or-flight response, and take the time to eat mindfully, away from distraction. Taking a walk after meal times can help to support this further.” – Christina Hughes, nutritionist & founder of Founded Nutrition
Slow Your Breathing
“When we are stressed, we breathe quickly and shallowly, which actually heightens our stress response. Making your exhale longer than your inhale is a speedy way to expel a high percentage of cortisol from the body. Try breathing in for four and out for eight – this will send signals of safety to the mind and lower stress.” – Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist & co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic
“When we feel stressed, it can feel like we aren’t really here. To bring yourself back into the present moment, try a mindful grounding exercise using your senses. Try it now: name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Countless studies show being mindful reduces stress.” – Belinda Sidhu, counsellor & psychotherapist at Therapy Finders
Engage Your Vagus Nerve
“The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body and is the main controller of your parasympathetic nervous system – aka your ‘chill’ state. Strengthening this nerve is associated with better emotional regulation, and overall wellbeing and resilience. The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so singing, chanting and humming are excellent ways to stimulate this nerve and instantly reduce stress. Sitting up straight, inhale through your nose for the count of five, and then exhale with a hum until you’ve expelled all the air you inhaled. Ensure you exhale gently as you hum so as to lengthen the count, then repeat five times.” – Fini
“Regular exercise is fantastic for both our physical and mental health. Exercise triggers the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Exercise can also reduce levels of cortisol. However, gentler forms of movement that also incorporate mindfulness tend to be better for this rather than high-intensity training, which can, in some cases, cause a spike in cortisol. Examples of cortisol-lowering exercises include walking, swimming, yoga and Pilates.” – Elena
Don’t Rely On Sugar
“The most important nutritional factor that impacts cortisol is blood sugar balance. When our blood sugar levels are low, cortisol rises. Refined carbohydrates and sugary foods release their energy quickly, which causes a rapid spike in our blood sugar, followed by a crash. This can not only leave us feeling fatigued or craving more sugar, but it also increases our stress levels as cortisol kicks in to provide the body with additional glucose from the liver. Avoid reaching for sugary snacks when stressed – even if you’re having some fruit, always add a handful of nuts or Greek yoghurt to slow the sugar release. At main meals, swap white carbs for wholegrains, root vegetables, beans and legumes.” – Christina
Time Your Caffeine
“Good-quality coffee can be rich in polyphenols and have some impressive health benefits. However, everyone has an individual caffeine tolerance which can also be affected by our cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol can lead to an increased heart rate which may explain the sensation of palpitations familiar to many. Avoiding caffeine while fasted, and potentially holding off on the first coffee until mid-morning when cortisol levels are past their peak may be beneficial. Swap your morning coffee for green tea, which contains l-theanine, an amino acid that can lower cortisol levels.” – Christina
Practise Alternate Nostril Breathing
“When you breathe in with your right nostril, this activates a sympathetic response, and breathing in through your left nostril activates a parasympathetic response. A healthy nervous system moves between each state many times during the day without any problem. By alternating between the two nostrils, you’re creating more balance between the two hemispheres of your brain as well as regulating any imbalances you may be experiencing. As this technique helps the nervous system to become more regulated, cortisol levels are also lowered. Close your right nostril with your right thumb, and slowly breathe in through your left nostril; close your left nostril with your index finger, and then release your right nostril and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat until you feel a sense of calm – around five minutes.” – Fini
Talk It Out
“Studies have shown that talking your problem or stress out with someone you trust can reduce stress and may help strengthen our immune system. When we feel stressed, the amygdala in the limbic part of our brain (also one of the oldest parts) – which acts a bit like our internal alarm system in the brain is activated. This can lead to a fight or flight response. When we talk about how we are feeling, studies have shown this leads us to move away from the limbic or chimp part of our brain, and into the area which deals with language which helps reduce the stress response leading to us becoming less reactive and more mindful. This helps to explain why when you talk to a trusted friend, family member, partner, or therapist, you usually feel better afterwards.” – Belinda
Take A Cold Shower
“Immersing yourself into a cold plunge pool or taking a cold shower may not sound relaxing, but studies show cortisol levels decrease when we immerse ourselves in cold water. This is because cold water immersion increases the production of mood-boosting hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine. You’ll see results taking two to three cold showers a week for around five minutes at a time.” – Elena
For more information, visit FoundedNutrition.com, TheBreathWay.co.uk, TheChelseaPsychologyClinic.com & TherapyFinders.co.uk.
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