Cortisol Balancing Is the Buzziest Health Trend Right Now—Here’s What You Need to Know

Cortisol Balancing Is the Buzziest Health Trend Right Now—Here’s What You Need to Know featured image
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Maintaining balanced cortisol levels has always been important, but it seems society is just now grasping how crucial it is to our health and mood. Seemingly overnight, my TikTok and Instagram feeds were overtaken by people who have experienced life-changing shifts after balancing their cortisol. It all sounded like a foreign language until I saw a list of signs that could indicate your cortisol is too high, some oddly specific like “moon face” or waking up at 3 a.m. consistently. I identified with many of the symptoms, so I did a deep dive into the whole trend. Here’s the breakdown.

Featured experts

  • Danielle Duboise is a functional medicine and nutrition expert and the founder of Sakara
  • Jennifer Hanway is a holistic nutritionist
  • Saru Bala, ND is a naturopathic doctor
  • Ariana Medizade, PharmD is a doctor of pharmacy and the host of “The Wellness Pharm” podcast

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is most commonly known as the stress hormone—but it also influences a wide range of other vital processes throughout the body including metabolism and immune responses, notes functional medicine and nutrition expert and founder of Sakara Danielle Duboise. Made by the adrenal glands, cortisol “plays a crucial role in the body’s stress response by increasing blood sugar, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose, and increasing the availability of substances that repair tissues,” says holistic nutritionist Jennifer Hanway. “Cortisol helps manage stress by increasing energy, boosting alertness, and regulating blood sugar levels—all essential for the fight or flight response,” notes naturopathic doctor Saru Bala, ND.

“Additionally, cortisol helps control the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It also suppresses the immune system’s inflammatory processes,” says Hanway. Plus, it has a heavy hand in influencing the body’s sleep-wake cycle.

What’s so bad about cortisol anyway?

Surprisingly, there’s nothing inherently bad about cortisol itself—it’s only a matter of whether we have too much or too little at the wrong time of day. “We have this big fad going on that high cortisol is inherently bad. There’s nothing about cortisol that is inherently good or bad. We need cortisol. And as with anything in our body, when it’s too high for too long, or too low for too long, it becomes a problem,” explains Dr. Bala.

“There is a large misconception that any and all cortisol is bad for the body, but in reality, it is a hormone that is vital to our survival,” says host of “The Wellness Pharm” podcast and doctor of pharmacy Ariana Medizade, PharmD. “Cortisol levels follow a daily rhythm, with levels peaking in the morning to help wake us up and gradually decreasing throughout the day. Cortisol does benefit us to some extent, such as helping our bodies respond to stress by increasing energy and alertness, influencing our body’s metabolism regulation, and it can help maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function.”

It’s important to note that “cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day. Levels typically peak in the morning to help wake us up and gradually decrease throughout the day, reaching their lowest point at night to promote restful sleep,” explains Dr. Medizade. “Understanding this rhythm is essential for interpreting cortisol test results accurately and identifying abnormalities in cortisol secretion.”

Signs of imbalanced cortisol levels

  • Fatigue
  • Weight changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • No appetite in the morning
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive issues
  • Joint pain
  • Low immune function
  • Hormonal imbalances like irregular menstrual cycle or infertility
  • Exacerbation of menopause symptoms
  • Premature aging
  • Hair loss
  • Skin problems

How can we regulate our cortisol levels?

If you’re experiencing a handful of these symptoms, it might be worth trying to regulate your cortisol levels by making a few lifestyle changes. Hint: managing stress is a huge part of it.

“It’s so much easier said than done, but mitigating the effects of everyday stress in our lives is key to regulating our cortisol levels—switching off your phone, getting to bed at the same time every night, meditating, walking in nature, setting healthy boundaries, even eating a healthy diet and limiting sugar and alcohol,” says Hanway. “All of the basic things that we know to do, but that our busy modern day lives make challenging.”

Avoid your phone first thing in the morning

The first thing many of us do in the morning is turn off our alarm and then scroll on our phones. While this might give you a quick dopamine boost, it’s destroying your cortisol balance. “Don’t go on your phone first thing in the morning,” warns Dr. Medizade. “Instead, try getting ready for the day and open your phone and apps 30 minutes after waking. Ideally, it is best to go outside soon after waking to help soothe and regulate your nervous system and therefore support your cortisol levels.”

Switch to low-impact workouts

“If you already have elevated cortisol levels, try aiming for low-impact and low-intensity exercises like pilates and strength training,” suggests Dr. Medizade.

Limit caffeine and alcohol

Sorry to tell you this, but excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol can increase cortisol levels, according to the experts. “Try consuming alcohol in moderation. Caffeine should be consumed one hour after waking in order to prevent spiking your already (naturally) elevated cortisol in the morning,” says Dr. Medizade.

Improve your sleep hygiene

“Have a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, get out of bed after you wake up and get sunlight in your eyes right away,” suggests Dr. Balu. “Keep your bed for sleep only. Don’t watch TV, don’t scroll your phone, don’t work, don’t be on your laptop. Do that in any other place of your home.” She also recommends a wind-down routine “that involves dimming any overhead lights after the sun goes down.” Plus, “Breathing is another amazing way of helping us get into our parasympathetic state. Longer and slower breaths tell our brain that we’re safe—we’re not running from a bear, and we can relax,” says Dr. Balu. “When you go to sleep in this state, you will fall asleep easier and stay asleep through the night.”

Adjust your diet

Duboise says it’s important to eat nutrient-dense, plant-rich meals to nourish the body with essential nutrients and antioxidants that support adrenal health. “Diversifying your gut microbiome with plant-rich whole foods also has a major impact on the regulation of cortisol levels,” she adds. Dr. Medizade says it’s also important to have meals at consistent times each day.

Work on stress relief

“Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, movement, or time with community can regulate cortisol by reducing overall stress levels, promoting relaxation, and preventing excessive activation of the stress response,” explains Duboise. Dr. Medizade also recommends yoga or spending time in nature.

Try supplements and adaptogens

There are certain supplements and adaptogens that can help balance cortisol and stress. For example, The Rebalance systems ($100) can help balance hormones naturally “so we can get deep, regenerative sleep resulting in optimal hormone production yielding improved mood, energy, focus and libido,” says CEO and co-founder of Rebalance Health Justin Hai.

“Supplements such as ashwagandha, magnesium and L-theanine can all be beneficial but only in addition to a healthy diet, stress mitigation techniques and great sleep,” says Hanway. Dr. Medizade also recommends rhodiola, holy basil, vitamin D3/K2, magnesium glycinate, omega 3 fatty acids and molecular hydrogen. However, “It is always important to ask your doctor before using supplements,” she notes.

Talk to your doctor

While we’re happy to share expert tips with you, your best bet is to talk to your doctor. Dr. Medizade says, “If you want to ask your doctor about cortisol testing, you may ask your doctor for a cortisol saliva test, cortisol blood test or 24-hour urine cortisol test.”

Hanway says, “The best way to assess cortisol regulation is via a Four Point Salivary Cortisol test as it tests your levels throughout the day, whereas a single blood test can provide only a snapshot of the cortisol level at the moment of the test, potentially missing the overall pattern of cortisol secretion.”

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