Understanding Your Cortisol Curve & How to Hack It
Understanding Your Cortisol Curve & How to Hack It

Understanding Your Cortisol Curve & How to Hack It

If you’re feeling anxious or irritated, or have trouble sleeping or finding focus, your cortisol curve might be out of sync. Here’s what you need to know, the signs to look for and how to fix it.
By Georgia Day

What is cortisol?

One of the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands in response to a stress threat, cortisol plays a vital role in many of the body’s major systems. For the body to function properly, it needs to follow an optimum pattern throughout the day.

What is the cortisol curve?

In a person with low-level or well-managed stress levels, the average cortisol curve is fairly simple, rising from about 3am onwards until it hits its peak around 7-8am each morning. This is ideal as that rush of hormones gets the blood pumping, the heart rate up, and the mind focused on what’s needed to help us feel alert and ready to face the challenges of the day. This peak usually lasts until around midday when the levels slowly and gently begin to decline. Late evening or around bedtime is when your cortisol levels should be at their lowest, and it’s this dip that allows the body and mind to begin to switch off and get ready for bed. This time of low cortisol secretion is also when melatonin onset occurs, and it's the release of this hormone that is essential for a good night’s sleep.

So, what’s the problem?

Although cortisol is essential and a very healthy part of the body’s natural stress response, the problem arises when you’re either constantly stressed, meaning your body is constantly producing cortisol, or when your cortisol’s peaks and troughs are out of normal alignment. Although it might not sound problematic if you feel more alert when you should feel relaxed and vice versa, the knock-on effect is significant. “If your cortisol levels are elevated or decreased at the wrong times of day, sleep disturbances can lead to fatigue throughout the day, and can affect many things from memory to mood, and even performance at work,” says Mike Kocsis, founder and hormone health expert at Balance My Hormones. “It can increase appetite which can lead to weight gain – the rise in cortisol can even affect insulin production, leading to higher blood sugar and risk of type 2 diabetes.”

How do you know when there’s an issue?

The important first step in understanding if your cortisol curve is out of sync is noticing how you feel at key moments during the day. “You might notice a change in your sleep pattern, or feel more tired throughout the day, even if you're sleeping for the same amount each night,” says Mike. “Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for energy; having high levels of cortisol can make you start craving more high-fat, sugary and salty foods. You may also experience headaches, mood swings and irritability.”

If you wake early in the morning, feeling wired and restless, it’s likely that your cortisol is peaking too early. As well as causing sleep disturbances in the early hours, higher-than-average cortisol first thing means you’re more likely to experience a crash later in the afternoon when they suddenly start to drop. If, on the other hand, you find yourself feeling fired up late into the evening and unable to relax when your cortisol should naturally be waning, then your curve might be upside down. This could be due to sleep inefficiencies, poorly managed stress during the working day or even after-work workouts, which naturally spike your cortisol.

Is there a way to get things back under control?

The number-one way to redress your cortisol curve is to manage stress better. Whether that’s making time for purposeful relaxation practices to take your mind off the stressful situation at hand or developing personal strategies for coping with an onslaught of stress triggers, it’s important to figure out what works for you. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule is a vital part of resetting your cortisol curve as it allows your body to get back into the rhythms that naturally guide it. In turn, this will encourage it to secrete the right hormones at the right time. “Try to regulate your circadian rhythm by sticking to the same bedtime every day, even on weekends, and try to get as much sunshine as possible throughout the day,” says Mike.

Finally, any other tips?

If evening exercise is a non-negotiable, find a compromise and switch to something like mat Pilates or Yin yoga, both of which promote calm energy. Although exercise does cause a surge of cortisol, done regularly it’s an important part of an anti-stress plan as it helps to maintain steady, healthy cortisol levels long term and promotes better sleep. Avoiding any kind of stimulant, whether it’s alcohol, caffeine or electronic devices, is another must, and eating late is also out. According to one study, late-night eaters showed consistently elevated levels of cortisol over the course of a day but especially from 8pm through to 2am. Finally, where possible, get out into nature as frequently as you can. Although a gentle stroll may feel benign, being outside is a powerful part of an anti-stress toolkit. “Spending time in nature activates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which counteracts the natural fight-or-flight stress response; this promotes relaxation and lowers cortisol levels,” says Mike.

For more information, visit BalanceMyHormones.co.uk

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