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3 Steps to Balance Cortisol

Balance is the key element when it comes to cortisol, a hormone produced in your adrenal glands. Cortisol performs many vital functions, including:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Metabolizing glucose
  • Assisting with circadian rhythm regulation
  • Formulating memories

Many of these tasks contribute to cortisol’s role in controlling the “flight or fight response.”  When your body senses danger, cortisol kicks in with the physiological responses that enable you to either flee the danger or fight it. Your heartbeat increases, blood flows to your major muscle groups, your nervous system is on hyper alert – all thanks to cortisol and other hormones like adrenaline. In this state of emergency preparedness, even the clotting ability of your blood increases, in case of injury. To create a fast supply of energy, you metabolize carbohydrates faster.

From an evolutionary perspective, these responses made a lot of sense. Long ago, stressors were often direct threats requiring a fast physical response, one that still serves us well in certain stressful situations.

Now, however, much of the stress in modern life is chronic stress, and we have much more sedentary lives. The cortisol our bodies release in times of stress isn’t necessarily required to initiate a physical response.

 

What Are the Effects of High Cortisol?

As a result of our more sedentary and stressful lives, many people suffer from an imbalance in their cortisol levels. An excess of cortisol in the body can lead to many troublesome symptoms, including:

  • Hypertension
  • Irritability
  • Weight gain, particularly in the belly and upper back
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems
  • Indigestion
  • Insomnia
  • Low libido

For menopausal women, these symptoms can be particularly pronounced. Cortisol levels rise at the end of menstruation, exacerbating menopausal symptoms at what is already a difficult time achieving hormonal balance. This is one of the main contributors to a frequent complaint among menopausal women: excess belly fat.

In menstruating women, excess cortisol can lead to painful, heavy, or absent periods. When estrogen is lowered from continuous stress and cortisol production, all the female hormone imbalance symptoms such as night sweats, sleep problems, and mood swings can get worse.

 

3 Key Steps to Balance Cortisol Levels

1 – Eat for success

A healthy diet is one of the most effective ways to regulate cortisol levels. Start by implementing these habits into your daily meals.

  • Reduce sugar and simple carbs. Studies show that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar raises cortisol levels. Somewhat paradoxically, a high-sugar diet can also make your body less efficient producing cortisol when in a stressful situation.
  • Drink lots of water. When you’re dehydrated, your cortisol levels rise.
  • Focus on fiber. The gut microbiome influences hormone production. A healthy microbiome requires high fiber intake, in order to stimulate the production of “good’ bacteria in the microbiome,
  • Choose omega-3. The anti-inflammatory qualities in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce cortisol levels. Foods high in omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon, flax and chia seeds, and nuts like walnuts.
  • Fermented foods for gut health. Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut help contribute to healthy bacteria levels in your gut, which helps regulate hormone production.

2.  Supplement smartly

Supplements that reduce inflammation and improve gut health can support lower cortisol levels. Some to consider include:

  • Fish oil. Boost your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with high-quality fish oil supplements.
  • Adaptogens like ashwagandha help your body cope with stress by lowering cortisol production.
  • Tea made with chamomile has been a relaxation treatment for centuries, and new studies suggest it may reduce cortisol levels.

Taking any new supplementation should be discussed with a healthcare practitioner to make sure it’s the right fit for you. We can help you with a personalized wellness plan tailored to your needs.

3. Reduce daily stress

Chronic stress contributes to problems with cortisol because your body is in a constant state of alert. However, reducing stress is often easier said than done. Focus on coping mechanisms to help address the way you respond to stressful situations.

  • Get enough sleep. It’s frustrating: When we’re tired, we produce more cortisol, but that cortisol also keeps us awake! This creates a seemingly endless cycle of exhaustion. Focus on creating a relaxing nighttime routine, including a regular bedtime and a restful sleep environment. Avoid alcohol, screens, large meals, and intense exercise before bed. You want to associate sleep with peace.
  • Spend time in nature. It’s a prescription that has stood the test of time. Being outside lowers your stress responses, including cortisol production. It doesn’t have to be an epic hike – just taking a walk through the neighborhood on a busy day helps.
  • Work on your relaxation responses. Meditation, yoga, and breathwork all condition your body to deal with stressful thoughts while minimizing their physical impact.
  • Be careful with the company you keep. Ever notice that some people are inherently stressful to be around? Although positive social relationships can improve our responses to stress, negative relationships create a sense of chronic stress that isn’t good for your cortisol levels. And, don’t limit your reach to human companionship – studies have found that positive interactions with pets can lower cortisol too!

 

If you recognize any of the signs of high cortisol levels, it’s time to take a proactive approach to managing your response to stress. Let us know if you want to learn more about controlling cortisol levels – and improving your overall health!

 

 

Sources:

Woods NF, Mitchell ES, Smith-Dijulio K. Cortisol levels during the menopausal transition and early postmenopause: observations from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study. Menopause. 2009;16(4):708-718. doi:10.1097/gme.0b013e318198d6b2

Hannibal KE, Bishop MD. Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Phys Ther. 2014;94(12):1816-1825. doi:10.2522/ptj.20130597

Soltani H, Keim NL, Laugero KD. Increasing Dietary Carbohydrate as Part of a Healthy Whole Food Diet Intervention Dampens Eight Week Changes in Salivary Cortisol and Cortisol Responsiveness. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2563. Published 2019 Oct 24. doi:10.3390/nu11112563

Tryon MS, Stanhope KL, Epel ES, Mason AE, Brown R, Medici V, Havel PJ, Laugero KD. Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Jun;100(6):2239-47. doi: 10.1210/jc.2014-4353. Epub 2015 Apr 16. PMID: 25879513; PMCID: PMC4454811.

Tryon MS, Stanhope KL, Epel ES, Mason AE, Brown R, Medici V, Havel PJ, Laugero KD. Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Jun;100(6):2239-47. doi: 10.1210/jc.2014-4353. Epub 2015 Apr 16. PMID: 25879513; PMCID: PMC4454811.

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6 Natural Ways To Balance Estrogen and Progesterone

Hormonal health is all about balance – but achieving the right balance can be a challenge, particularly for women at midlife. One of the most striking examples of this dynamic is found in women whose estrogen and progesterone balance is off kilter. The wide range of resulting symptoms can be debilitating, and women can find themselves battling heavy periods, disruptive PMS, fatigue, and many more symptoms.

How can balance be restored for optimum well-being? Let’s take a look at how hormones influence your health and how a healthy lifestyle can help.

Hormones’ Role In Your Health

Your body contains over 50 different types of hormones, and they all act as chemical messengers to other parts of the body. Hormones are secreted by endocrine glands, including the:

  • Pituitary gland
  • Thyroid
  • Adrenal glands
  • Pancreas
  • Testes
  • Ovaries

When hormones are released by endocrine glands, they travel to specific receptor sites, where they “lock-in” and transmit a message to perform a specific action.

What does this mean in practical terms? Your hormones control almost every function in your body, including:

  • Metabolism of food items
  • Hunger
  • Sleep
  • Sexual function and reproductive health
  • Mood
  • Cognitive ability
  • Stress response
  • Appetite

Hormones also work in tandem with each other. A good example is the relationship between progesterone and estrogen, two hormones produced by the ovaries that work together to regulate the menstrual cycle.

The Link Between Estrogen and Progesterone

Estrogen and progesterone have complementary functions. Estrogen is the more energizing of the two and helps with memory, libido, mood, sleep and many other functions. It helps protect bone density, youthful skin and hair, mental sharpness, and healthy cholesterol levels. Estrogen levels rise in the follicular phase, which is the first half of the menstrual cycle, up to the point of ovulation.

Progesterone is produced after ovulation occurs (the period called the luteal phase) and has a more calming function. Progesterone levels peak about midway through the luteal phase, then drop off before menstruation occurs. This sudden drop can contribute to symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Progesterone helps regulate the effects of estrogen on the body. It plays a role in the growth of the uterine lining during menstruation, and helps regulate the timing of menstruation.

As you see, both hormones play vital functions in a woman’s body, but they must be balanced. Having inadequate levels of progesterone is not only problematic on its own, but estrogen doesn’t function as well with low levels of progesterone. When your levels of estrogen and progesterone aren’t balanced, estrogen dominance can occur.

Estrogen Dominance: When Hormones Go Off Kilter

Without the balancing influence of progesterone, estrogen’s influence on the body can lead to troubling symptoms. Women who previously hadn’t experienced trouble with their periods may find themselves bleeding far heavier than before. They may struggle with PMS or wonder where their wild mood swings came from. The symptoms of estrogen dominance include:

  • Heavy periods
  • Weight gain, particularly around the belly
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Mood disorders, including anxiety and depression
  • Anger management issues
  • Increased risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers

What Causes Estrogen Dominance?

Many factors can lead to estrogen imbalance, and it’s not uncommon for a woman to experience more than one cause.

  • Problems in other parts of the body can contribute to estrogen dominance, including poor liver function, since the liver helps eliminate excess estrogen.
  • Other hormones also influence estrogen and progesterone production, particularly insulin and cortisol, so when those hormones are disrupted, the effects can cascade.
  • Chronic stress can lead to harmful hormonal fluctuations.
  • A poor diet can also lead to hormonal problems, because magnesium, zinc, protein, and B vitamins help to metabolize estrogen. In addition, since fat cells produce estrogen, obesity can contribute to excess levels.
  • Normal age-related fluctuations in hormone levels can create imbalances, particularly during the perimenopause years. Women experiencing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are also vulnerable.
  • Interestingly, sometimes estrogen dominance isn’t caused by estrogen itself. Xenohormones are compounds that mimic the properties of estrogens. They can be absorbed by the body and trigger estrogen production, leading to further imbalances. Many common products contain xenohormones, including plastics (watch out for plastic food containers in particular), pesticides, factory-farmed meat, car exhaust, and emulsifiers found in shampoo and other beauty products.

How To Balance Estrogen and Progesterone

1 – Reduce stress.

Stress, particularly the chronic stress so common in our modern lives, impacts cortisol production, which in turn impacts other hormones, including progesterone. Stress reduction techniques such as meditation and yoga can help regulate stress and hormone levels. Sometimes, a simple attitude shift in attitude can slow the “flight or fight” response that produces cortisol. To do this, try considering a stressful event in a more positive light – perhaps as an opportunity to prove your strength.

2 – Get enough sleep.

Hormonal imbalances can cause sleep disturbances. At the same time, you need adequate sleep to maintain healthy hormonal balance. If this seems frustrating, it is! Work with a healthcare practitioner to address stubborn sleep issues and avoid sleep medications.

3 – Maintain a healthy liver and gut.

Your liver metabolizes estrogen, so it’s imperative to maintain optimum liver health by reducing exposure to toxins and minimizing alcohol. In addition, your gut microbiome also plays a role in estrogen regulation. Probiotic supplements, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, and drinks like kefir help maintain the “good” bacteria in the microbiome. Fiber consumption triggers the production of more bacteria, so increase your fiber intake with a focus on whole grains and produce. High amounts of fiber can also lead to more bowel movements, which helps eliminate excess estrogen.

4 – Eat for hormone health.

The traditional Western diet of highly processed, high-sugar foods is linked to higher estrogen production. In contrast, a Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce estrogen levels. The Mediterranean diet centers around whole grains, brightly colored vegetables, olive oil, and fish. Green, leafy vegetables like kale and spinach are particularly beneficial.

Protein is essential for the production of amino acids, which are the building blocks of hormones. Some evidence shows that vegetarian sources of protein are the most effective in regulating estrogen – but the most important factor is to avoid meat from animals exposed to pesticides and artificial hormones.

Omega-3 fatty acids help regular insulin and cortisol production and reduce inflammation, which has a beneficial effect on estrogen. Foods high in omega-3 include chia seeds, avocados, many nuts, and fatty fish.

5 – Improve hormone receptivity with exercise.

Some research shows that regular exercise can make your body more receptive to the messages carried by hormones. Plus, exercise can help reduce excess body fat, which carries estrogen.

6 – Consider replacement.

The decision to start hormone therapy can be complex, with many factors to consider, including a woman’s age and overall health. It’s important to work with a healthcare practitioner to find a solution that works for you.

In bioidentical hormones, the hormones are derived from plants and are identical to the hormones produced in your body. These can be customized based on your unique hormone profile. Traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is synthetic. The hormones are close to those in your body, but not always exactly the same. Long-term use of HRT carries many risks, including increased rates of certain cancers, heart disease, and strokes.

If you recognize any symptoms of hormonal imbalance, we can help! Reach out to get a comprehensive assessment of your hormones and a customized plan for rebalancing. You don’t have to live with an imbalance of hormones!

 

Sources:

Paterni I, Granchi C, Minutolo F. Risks and benefits related to alimentary exposure to xenoestrogens. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57(16):3384-3404. doi:10.1080/10408398.2015.1126547

Layman DK, Anthony TG, Rasmussen BB, et al. Defining meal requirements for protein to optimize metabolic roles of amino acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(6):1330S-1338S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.084053

Sánchez-Zamorano LM, Flores-Luna L, Angeles-Llerenas A, Ortega-Olvera C, Lazcano-Ponce E, Romieu I, Mainero-Ratchelous F, Torres-Mejía G. The Western dietary pattern is associated with increased serum concentrations of free estradiol in postmenopausal women: implications for breast cancer prevention. Nutr Res. 2016 Aug;36(8):845-54. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2016.04.008. Epub 2016 Apr 26. PMID: 27440539.

Cano A, Marshall S, Zolfaroli I, Bitzer J, Ceausu I, Chedraui P, Durmusoglu F, Erkkola R, Goulis DG, Hirschberg AL, Kiesel L, Lopes P, Pines A, van Trotsenburg M, Lambrinoudaki I, Rees M. The Mediterranean diet and menopausal health: An EMAS position statement. Maturitas. 2020 Sep;139:90-97. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2020.07.001. Epub 2020 Jul 15. PMID: 32682573.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC3574573/

Gorbach SL, Goldin BR. Diet and the excretion and enterohepatic cycling of estrogens. Prev Med. 1987 Jul;16(4):525-31. doi: 10.1016/0091-7435(87)90067-3. PMID: 3628202.

Sánchez-Zamorano LM, Flores-Luna L, Angeles-Llerenas A, Ortega-Olvera C, Lazcano-Ponce E, Romieu I, Mainero-Ratchelous F, Torres-Mejía G. The Western dietary pattern is associated with increased serum concentrations of free estradiol in postmenopausal women: implications for breast cancer prevention. Nutr Res. 2016 Aug;36(8):845-54. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2016.04.008. Epub 2016 Apr 26. PMID: 27440539.

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