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Struggling with a mid-afternoon energy slump? This hormone might be the culprit


Photo: Stocksy/Alexey Kuzma
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your healthy cortisol cycle
Graphic: Abby Maker

You’re Superwoman in the morning, you power through lunchtime meetings, and then you fade around 3 p.m.—just to feel wide awake when 9 p.m. rolls around.

Sound familiar? It’s not because of what you ate or the fact that you’ve been sitting too long (though those factors might make it worse). And it’s definitely not all in your head. There’s a hormone that’s responsible for this whole thing.

You’re Superwoman in the morning, you power through lunchtime meetings, and then you fade around 3 p.m.—just to feel wide awake when 9 p.m. rolls around.

Cortisol is the hormone that governs your blood sugar, blood pressure, digestion, hunger cravings, digestion, sleep/wake patterns, physical activity, and your capacity to cope with stress,” says gynecologist Sara Gottfried, MD, author of the New York Times bestseller The Hormone Reset Diet. In other words, it’s mission control for being a functional human being. “When you’re in fight-or-flight [mode], cortisol’s role is to raise blood pressure (so you can run) and blood sugar (to power your muscles), and to modulate your immune system.”

For example, when you’re getting a big energy spike just as you start thinking about winding down and going to sleep, it’s an indication that your cortisol levels are staying high at a time when, according to their natural 24-hour rhythm, they should be tapering off.

Other hints that the ebb-and-flow pattern is just…off: everything from brain fog to insomnia to weight gain and irregular periods.

What does a healthy cortisol cycle look like? And how can you get back to balance? Dr. Gottfried shares her science-backed methods for hormonal harmony.

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cortisol out of balance
Photo: StockSnap/Matthew Hamilton

So, what’s normal?

For most people, there’s a natural spike in the morning, which explains why we feel a burst of no-coffee-required energy in the a.m.—either right away or once we’ve moved around a bit and shaken off the cobwebs—and a lull in the afternoon. And for some people, it spikes again in the afternoon or evening (hello, night owls).

But generally, the highest levels are made in the morning, less is produced during the day, and very little in the evening. Only minimal amounts of cortisol are produced while you sleep. “When your cortisol levels are in balance, you feel calm, cool, and collected all the time,” says Dr. Gottfried. “You sleep well, and are able to manage stress without it overcoming you. Your blood pressure and blood sugar levels are normal.”

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how to get better sleep
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What if your cortisol switch is always “on”?

The hormone’s levels should bottom out around midnight, while you’re asleep, explains Dr. Gottfried. That’s when your cells can perform their greatest repair. “If your cortisol levels are still high while you’re sleeping, your body can’t do the healing it needs. As a result, you wake up feeling fatigued, like you want coffee—which raises cortisol—and perhaps you have trouble recovering from exercise.”

Chronic stress is a likely culprit, as it almost constantly produces cortisol and makes it near impossible to wind down. “High evening cortisol makes you feel like you don’t need rest at the time when you actually need it most.”

The result: depleted adrenals, which in turn cause serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (AKA all the mood-balancing hormones you want to be coursing through you) to plummet. Lack of sleep makes it harder to sleep because of stress and high cortisol, so it becomes an endless cycle. Dr. Gottfried sums it up bluntly: “It’s crucial to mind your cortisol.”

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stress inflammation diet
Photo: Stocksy/Alexey Kuzma

Is this the same as adrenal fatigue?

The two modern-day woes are in fact related. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which is controlled by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal thyroid gonadal (HPATG) axis. In times of stress, the HPATG axis signals the adrenal glands to increase cortisol production. Once cortisol levels increase, they basically tell the HPATG, “Don‘t worry, we’ve got this,” and the HPATG axis stops inducing the adrenal glands to increase cortisol production.

Your body is designed to do this rarely—think four times a year—and then experience long periods of calm. The problem is that most of us run around stressed too much of the time. When stress is chronic, the HPATG axis keeps triggering the adrenals to produce more and more cortisol, leading to adrenal disregulation.

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How do you bring things back to balance?

Good news: Dr. Gottfried believes lifestyle and supplemental strategies are powerfully effective for most women. A lot of the advice boils down to the usual no-brainers: a whole-foods diet, appropriate exercise, and stress management via meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga.

Here are some specific places to begin:

Eat nutrient-dense food. Avoid refined carbs and sugar like the plague. (Which is tough when cravings can be a symptom of high cortisol. Don’t give in—it only spirals downward.) If you’re a low-cortisol person during the day, eat “slow carbs” such as sweet potatoes at night.

Exercise in the morning. And if your levels are high, remember that cardio can raise cortisol. Dr. Gottfried says switching from running to yoga and Pilates made all the difference for her weight.

Maintain a contemplative practice. This one is nonnegotiable—especially if you’re struggling with your weight. A study from the University of California at San Francisco showed that obese women who began a mindfulness program and stuck with it for four months lost belly fat. That makes sense because your belly fat contains four times (!) the cortisol receptors as fat elsewhere in the body.

 Take omega-3 supplements. Men and women who took 4,000 milligrams of fish oil a day for six weeks lowered their morning cortisol to healthier levels and increased their lean body mass, according to a 2010 Gettysburg College study. Look for a supplement that has been third-party-tested and is free of mercury and other endocrine disruptors.

Take rhodiola. This adaptogenic herb, a form of ginseng, is the best botanical treatment for balancing stress hormones, says Dr. Gottfried. Aim for 200 milligrams once or twice a day.

Take vitamin C. It’s been shown to lower cortisol in surgical patients and students in stressful situations, and is a safe supplement to add to your regimen. Try 750 to 1,000 milligrams per day, maximum, since more may cause a loose stool (which, real talk, could stress you out enough to send your cortisol levels back through the roof).

Take vitamin B5. It appears to reduce excessive cortisol in people under high stress, Dr. Gottfried notes—plus, it’s a low-risk treatment. Aim for 500 milligrams per day.

Another way to lower your stress levels: believe it or not, self-hypnosis. Or, even better, make this calm-inducing dessert tonight