If cortisol had a publicist, they would be buried in work right now trying to fix the hormone’s undeserved image as the endocrine system’s problem child. Cortisol is seen as the intimate companion of stress and, with nearly every ailment blamed at least partially on stress these days, it makes sense that cortisol’s reputation has taken a hit.
While there is a close relationship between the two, stress and cortisol aren’t all bad, just as they aren’t all good. In fact, balanced cortisol is necessary for achieving your best health. The key to using cortisol to your advantage is understanding and optimizing its typical ebbs and flows.
Riding the Wave: Meet the Daily Fluctuations of Cortisol
If you’ve ever had a baby, you know that it’s nearly impossible to get an infant back to sleep in the dawn hours. That is thanks to our pal cortisol. One of cortisol’s primary functions is to keep the body alert when it needs to be awake, and sleepy when it’s time to rest. It exists in an inverse relationship to melatonin, and it acts as the body’s natural alarm clock, steadily rising in the hours before morning so you’re ready to pop out of bed.
If you were to look at healthy cortisol fluctuations on a graph, it would “look like a sinusoidal wave curve that repeats on a 24-hour basis,” says naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist Dr. Lana Butner. “No sharp increases or drops should occur in a healthy, balanced cortisol curve. It should always be highest in the morning and lowest as the day is ending.”
There are several different ways that this natural wave of cortisol can get into trouble. Butner says if you experience a second wind in the evening or late at night, that likely means your cortisol flow looks like a double-peaked curve, with an extra spike at the end of the day. If you have an afternoon crash, your cortisol may be doing a sharp dive as opposed to a smooth decline. “If you feel wired but tired, you most likely have a flatter curve that remains high throughout the day,” she says.
While each of these situations can cause some problems, more serious issues arise when the body doesn’t have a chance to return to neutral after a spike. When the hormone remains elevated after an increase, the problematic form of stress kicks in. Villegas likens this situation to a “cortisol IV,” in which you’re receiving consistent levels of the hormone even if you don’t have anything particularly stressful going on.
Your Cycle Can Affect Cortisol’s Normal Patterns
There’s one other system in the body that can affect your monthly cortisol flow. “Your 24-hour and ~28-day cycles are constantly interacting with one another,” says Briana Villegas, certified menstrual cycle coach. She calls it a “two-way street of communication” where cortisol levels are impacted differently by the infradian rhythm, otherwise known as your monthly cycle, depending on what phase you’re in.
“In the first half of your cycle (follicular to ovulatory phases), your body is better able to recover from cortisol spikes,” Villegas explains. However, in the second half of the menstrual cycle (the luteal phase), your body becomes “hypervigilant” in an effort to create optimal conditions for pregnancy. “As a result, more cortisol can be released in response to the same triggers and your body may have a harder time getting back to neutral.” So, your life may not be dramatically different in the week leading up to your period, but you still may feel more stressed out. (Hello, PMS.)
This relationship also goes the other way, with your cortisol levels influencing your cycle. If your cortisol levels are consistently high, the stress hormone starts to compete with your reproductive hormones, “which not only keep you fertile but also feeling good,” Villegas says. “Biologically, when your body perceives your environment to be too stressful, it does everything it can to shut down ovulation. Even if you do ovulate, cortisol will block progesterone receptors and its benefits.”
This can mess up your normal cycle as well as lead to anovulatory cycles, in which you do not ovulate and cannot become pregnant.
Tips and Tricks to Get the Most Out of Your Natural Cortisol Fluctuations
The good news? There are some easy (and even fun) ways to hack the natural ebbs and flows of cortisol so you can reap its benefits without feeling frazzled or experiencing the burnout that comes with prolonged excess cortisol.
Pay attention to what type of exercise you are doing and when
As good as it is for you, exercise is a stressor on the body, and it can spike cortisol levels. Villegas says high-intensity, aerobic workouts which cause healthy cortisol spikes are best in the morning (she stresses after breakfast) and during the follicular and ovulatory phases of your menstrual cycle. “Weight training is best in the afternoon, and it can help boost alertness for the second half of your workday. Afternoon workouts can also be ideal during the luteal [phase], especially the week before your period, as you are less susceptible to injury at this time of day.”
If you tend to work out in the evening, a slower, low-impact workout like yoga, Pilates, barre, dance, or swimming can help to limit the before-bed cortisol spike and corresponding melatonin delay intense exercise may cause.
Rethink what your coffee habit looks like
We would never suggest you give up caffeine entirely, but knowing how coffee affects cortisol can help you make decisions on how and when to imbibe. The link between coffee and increased cortisol has been well established. Drinking it first thing in the morning when your cortisol is already at its highest may leave you feeling jittery, while drinking a cup later in the day may give you an unwanted second cortisol peak in the evening. Try reducing how much coffee you’re drinking, experimenting with options that have less caffeine, like espresso or black tea, and confining your intake to the gap that starts a few hours after you wake up and ends with your lunch break.
Reset your 24-hour clock
Cortisol responds to external cues, Villegas explains, which is why it’s hard to sleep in a bright room or after scrolling on your blue-light-emitting phone. But a few easy tweaks can help reset your clock, leading to more balanced cortisol. “Start with an audit of your morning and evening routine,” she says. Small shifts, like getting some natural light first thing in the morning, putting your phone in nighttime mode (or better yet reading or journaling before bed) can help regulate your cortisol levels so the hormone is rising when you wake up, and not as you’re winding down.
Take a minute to pause during the day
“You may be constantly moving from one meeting to the next, or you may have a running to-do list in your head keeping you from being fully present in the moment and in your body. This sends your body constant cues of danger, which creates the downward spiral of burnout,” Villegas says. As hard as it is, try to be present and focused on what you’re doing, and take mindful pauses to breathe or sip some water or tea, even when you have a busy day.
Try barefoot forest bathing
If your cortisol starts to feel like it’s getting out of control, forest bathing – or walking through a green, grassy, or tree-filled area – has become popular as a fun form of stress control. But going barefoot can give you even more benefits. “The practice of reconnecting physically with nature stimulates an ion transfer between the soles of our feet and the earth's grounding forces,” Dr. Lana says. Studies have shown this form of forest bathing significantly reduces cortisol levels in the short term.
Or simply look at something green
Maybe you’re a city dweller who doesn’t have easy access to a nice patch of nature. No big deal. “The color green has been shown time and time again to decrease cortisol and move your body from sympathetic overdrive into a parasympathetic state of mind,” Dr. Lana says. While the biggest benefits come with gazing on the color in nature since green spaces are correlated with healthier average cortisol levels in women (and strangely, higher cortisol levels in men), getting a plant (real or fake) for your office or making something green your phone background can also work.
Take a supplement
Another way to help keep your cortisol humming along at its peak health is to take a supplement. Veracity’s Vital Cortisol Calming supplement contains adaptogens, amino acids, and nootropics that work to keep both your mind and body calm and balanced. Bonus points, it also soothes any skin flare-ups caused by high cortisol.
Keep an eye on your monthly cycle
It can be hard to keep up with lifestyle changes, even when you know the benefits they’re giving you. When it comes to cortisol, pay attention to your monthly cycle and be especially diligent about getting some time in nature or pausing to breathe during the second half of your cycle – your luteal and menstrual phases – when your body is less able to deal with spikes in cortisol.
Cortisol isn’t the enemy. It helps regulate our bodily functions and keeps us feeling healthy, awake, and capable of getting things done. But when you don’t allow your cortisol time to come back down from its daily highs, you may get stuck in a vicious cycle of elevated stress that can ultimately end in burnout. Just remember: if you take care of your cortisol, your cortisol will take care of you.