In today’s fast-paced world, chronic stress has become a constant companion. And let’s be honest, she’s not everybody’s favorite passenger princess. These days it’s super common to experience feelings of overwhelm, burnout, and to be on a quest for calm. One of the best ways to create calm is to learn how to be your own cortisol manager.

 

When we experience constant stress, the body triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. While cortisol plays a vital role in the body’s fight-or-flight response, chronically elevated levels wreak havoc on our health. Eventually, it impacts everything from sleep quality to digestion and immune function. If you’re seeking to become your own “cortisol manager,” venturing beyond temporary anxiety fixes like like Xanax or Ativan is key. 

 

In this blog we’ll discuss holistic approaches that empower you to address stress at its root.

The result? A happier, healthier you.

 

UNDERSTANDING CORTISOL: FROM ACUTE FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT TO CHRONIC DISRUPTION

Before we dive into natural cortisol management techniques, let’s revisit the role of cortisol (in case you haven’t had a debriefing in awhile.)

Cortisol, often referred to as our “stress hormone”, increases in response to perceived threats as our built-in survival mechanism. For example, when you have an upcoming presentation at work or you’re swerving to avoid a fender bender on the highway, cortisol provides a burst of energy and alertness in order to help us cope with immediate challenges. However, since many of us live in a chronically stressed environment, cortisol levels stay elevated for extended periods. Over the long-term, this disrupts the body’s delicate hormonal balance.

This creates a domino effect of negative effects:

  • Disrupted Sleep: 

    • Elevated cortisol can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Overtime, this leaves you feeling drained, exhausted and foggy.
  • Digestive Issues

    • Chronic stress decreases stomach acid and slows digestion which can then manifest in gut issues like bloating, constipation, and heartburn.
  • Weakened Immune System

    • Cortisol can suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness, colds, and flus.
  • Weight Gain

    • Cortisol promotes the storage of belly fat and can make it hard to lose weight.
  • Anxiety and Mood Swings:

    • Chronic stress disrupts the delicate balance of neurotransmitters like dopamine, GABA and serotonin, leading to anxiety, depression, and mood swings.

Managing cortisol is a super hot topic these days… and for good reason. When our nervous system is dysregulated, it affects nearly every other system in our body and makes it hard to heal. So if you’ve been trying your darndest to heal your gut, injury or other health issue to no avail, it’s time to manage your cortisol.

 

CHINESE MEDICINE HAS ENTERED THE CHAT: ACUPUNCTURE, CUPPING, AND GUA SHA AS CORTISOL MANAGERS

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an umbrella term that includes a multitude of modalities that help act as cortisol managers. These ancient, time-tested techniques focus on restoring balance in the body’s energy flow, known as qi. 

Here’s three TCM modalities that we offer at Flora Fauna Wellness that will become your new BFF’s in your stress management journey:

  • Acupuncture: Teeny tiny needles are inserted at specific points along meridians, or energetic pathways in the body.  Acupuncture can reduce stress hormones, including cortisol, which leaves you feeling relaxed. With consistent treatment, acupuncture can help manage anxiety, insomnia, and headaches, all of which can contribute to elevated cortisol levels.
  • Cupping:  Cupping therapy involves placing glass or silicone cups on the skin, and using suction to help improve blood flow, promote relaxation, and alleviate muscle tension, all of which can contribute to cortisol reduction.  Cupping helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that turns on after a stressful event, like the brake pedal. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of cortisol management, is the gas. Cupping may look like a scary science experiment but as the cups lift and decompress the muscles, your body starts to chill out and relax.  Cupping is definitely a fan favorite for anyone with tight traps, neck or shoulder pain that often comes along with stress. 
  • Gua Sha: This technique uses a smooth-edged tool to gently scrape the skin, often on the neck, back, arms, and legs.  It’s also become extremely popular in the self-care movement and used as a face and beauty tool. Gua Sha promotes blood flow, reduces inflammation, and alleviates muscle tension, resulting in improved range of motion as well as less stress and tension.

Becoming your own Cortisol Manager, patient shuts eyes while Gua Sha is moved over her neck

 

MANAGE YOUR CORTISOL: EASY DAILY TASKS

TCM practices like acupuncture, cupping and gua sha are great tools to help you destress and manage your cortisol levels, but a holistic approach to cortisol management requires lifestyle modifications

Here are some key cortisol manager practices to incorporate:

  • Getting Outside Within An Hour Of Waking:

    • Getting outside within an hour of waking can help regulate cortisol levels, which is crucial for setting your body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. Exposure to natural light, especially in the morning, signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up and be alert. This exposure helps suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, and stimulates the production of cortisol, which helps you feel more awake and alert. By regulating cortisol levels in this way, you can improve your energy levels, mood, and overall well-being throughout the day.

  • Meditation:

    • Yes, yes, the tried and true thing you “should be doing”! But mindfulness and meditation always make the list for a reason. These practices cultivate awareness of the present moment and train the mind to focus on the calm amidst the chaos. Using meditation, you can effectively reduce stress hormones and promote long-lasting feelings of peace and well-being, no matter what’s going on. Don’t believe me? Check out this study here.
    • If you’re not big into sitting still- try taking a walk, having a tea ceremony for one, or even just humming or singing. One way or another, find your way to the silence and stillness within and watch the heart rate follow.
  • Deep Breathing Exercises: 

    • Taking slow, deep breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s “rest and digest” response. Deep breathing exercises can be a quick and effective way to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels in the moment. Whether your goal is to become more conscious of taking deep breaths throughout your day or doing guided breathwork sessions daily (at home or in a studio) there are many different deep breathing techniques. Find one that resonates with you and practice it while you drive, while you walk, throughout the day, whenever. Remember, stress management is a practice and just like anything you practice, you want to get good at it before going into the big game (aka super stressful situations). Practice daily for best results.
  • Prioritizing Sleep: 

    • Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. Go to sleep and wake up with the sun. This helps to regulate our circadian rhythm or the 24 hour biological clock that controls our appetite, metabolism, digestion and hormones. Staying up late scrolling like many of us do raises our cortisol when it should be at its lowest.  When well-rested, your body is better equipped to manage stress and regulate cortisol levels naturally. All that is to say- create a relaxing bedtime routine, ensure your bedroom is dark and cool, and limit screen time before bed to promote better sleep hygiene.
  • Use Food As Fuel:

    • A Paleo-based diet rich in whole foods provides the essential nutrients your body needs to cope with stress. Focus on high-quality protein sources (organic, grassfed, pasture raised), vegetables, and small amounts of fruit to provide the body with sustained energy and support the adrenal glands, which are responsible for cortisol production. Limit processed foods, sugary drinks, and seed oils like canola, safflower, sunflower or vegetable oil, as these can exacerbate inflammation and contribute to stress. 
  • Limit Stimulants And Alcohol: 

    • Reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol, as these substances can exacerbate anxiety and disrupt sleep patterns, ultimately contributing to elevated cortisol levels. Yes, your Friday and Saturday night escapades can affect your cortisol levels for much longer than just the next day’s hangover. Limit how much you drink and how frequently. Opt for herbal teas or natural stress-relieving beverages like adaptogen based ‘mocktails’ throughout the day.
  • Connecting with Nature: 

    • Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and lower cortisol levels. While ‘grounding’ may seem like some weird, hippie fad, studies have actually shown how putting your feet in the dirt, sand, or grass can help to relieve stress, especially for women. And, BONUS, it reduces the effects of EMF’s that come from electronics and bluetooth. Try to get outside daily and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of nature. Go for a walk in the park, watch a sunset at the beach, take a hike in the woods, or garden in your backyard. 
  • Build a Supportive Community

    • Did you know laughter scientifically lowers cortisol levels? So find your funniest friends and laugh it up. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people who uplift and inspire you. Strong social connections can buffer the negative effects of stress and promote feelings of belonging and emotional well-being. Call a friend, join a networking or social group, or seek professional support if needed. A cortisol manager is only as good as the team around them!
    • Patient relaxing after acupuncture, laying down on white treatment table

Remember, Being Your Own Cortisol Manager Takes Consistency and Self-Motivation!

By incorporating these holistic practices into your life, you can become your own empowered cortisol manager.  Nobody is going to eat healthy, reduce stress, or workout for you, so these things become the most recognizable form of self-discipline. They don’t always feel comfortable or exciting at first. That’s OK! Once the feelings of delayed gratification come rolling in (not losing your marbles when you normally would, being able to sleep like a champ, not having debilitating daily anxiety), you’ll be able to bask in the benefits of your own hard-work and dedication.

Your cortisol management journey is not about achieving perfection, but rather about creating a sustainable approach to stress management. Pay attention to the subtle shifts in your energy levels, mood, and overall well-being as you prioritize self-care and embrace these natural cortisol-balancing strategies.  Overall, with dedication and consistency, you can cultivate a calmer, more resilient you. And ultimately, pave the way for a happier and healthier life. Officially your own cortisol manager? Consider the calm in your life managed!