Cortisol is the body’s major defense against stress, both physical and emotional. Physical stress can occur from injuries, infections, excessive exercise, malnutrition, changes in body temperature, inflammation, and more. Emotional stress arises from daily pressures, loss of loved ones, emotional traumas, and other factors affecting our mental state. Without cortisol we would be unable to cope with these stressors. It is the one hormone we need to survive.
What happens when you have too much cortisol?
Cortisol imbalance begins with stress. Our bodies produce and secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress to help us cope with whatever the stressor may be. However, this stress is designed to be a short-term process, not for the days, months, and years that chronic stress is today.
Symptoms of excess cortisol are often associated with the typical stress symptoms:
I often see high cortisol levels in clients with stressful jobs, as well as in new moms and university students. If this stress continues, our adrenal glands can have a hard time keeping up. They may be unable to produce enough cortisol to meet our daily demands, and eventually resulting in lower cortisol levels and ultimately adrenal fatigue (more on this soon).
Flip it: This brings us to Cortisol Deficiency
Cortisol deficiency (also known as adrenal fatigue) is something I am seeing more and more in practice. I often see this in people who lead busy lives and are under a lot of stress. For example, university students, working mothers, people in high-stakes jobs, and people with a history of abuse and family/relationship difficulties or losses. Adrenal fatigue is one of the most common and under diagnosed hormone imbalances.
How does food fit in?
The wrong foods can be a huge stress on your body. And stress increases cortisol, the alpha male of your hormones as it can really mess up your other hormones, especially if you’re going through peri or menopause, or if you have PMS or other hormone imbalances.
So what are the foods that can stress the body? Well it's not a definitive list for everyone, as each of us is unique and may react differently to different foods. But there are some general guidelines;
Sugar – we all know not to eat too much sugar. But what we don’t realise is that carbohydrates are just long chains of sugar, so when we eat bread for instance, it breaks down into sugar pretty fast. So its not just the sugar we need to avoid, it’s also the refined carbohydrates.
Bad fats – are a stress for most people and certainly not hormone friendly. They are found in many processed or deep fried foods –anything that has been cooked with vegetable oils. These oils are very volatile and when heated and processed get de-natured and turned into trans fats (they basically go rancid), damaging our DNA, disrupting hormones and accelerating ageing! As well as raising cortisol.
Food chemicals – if you look at the label on the average packaged food, you may see ingredients you’ve never heard of. Ingredients that would never be in that dish if you cooked it from scratch. That’s because they are industrial chemical additives, used as preservatives, flavourings, colours, fillers and binding agents. Not things you’re going to need on your average home cooked curry.
Food sensitivities – if you are sensitive to something like gluten or dairy (they are the biggest 2), each time you eat them, you put your body under stress. These foods can cause inflammation (a stress state) and disrupt the absorption of nutrients vital for your hormones and other functions.
Toxins – pesticides, antibiotics and hormones given to animals, PCB’s and heavy metals. Eat as organically as possible, and definitely filter your tap water.