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Cortisol is a buzzword that’s become synonymous with stress, anxiety, excitement, and has been circulating in wellness circles as something to be seized and carefully controlled. Such discourse makes cortisol seem like an executively-controlled hormone that’s at the whim of our will, which is only partially true. Let's chat all things cortisol: what it is, why it’s useful, how we’re in control and how we’re not, and how to naturally lower cortisol in the mornings.

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What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, which is a type of hormone that’s regulated by your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands are located above your kidneys and have a range of functions, with their most relevant functionality mediating the stress response. We have a daily fluctuation of cortisol levels, which regulates our alertness and energy capacities. In healthy systems, cortisol peaks around 9 AM, or approximately two hours after waking up--this means you’re most alert and productive in the morning. 

So, cortisol should be high in the morning?

To a degree, yes. Cortisol should be highest after waking, and should be lowest right before bed. This gradual decline accounts for normal fluctuations in energy, motivation, and attention span during the course of a day (hence, why you might not be able to work past 7 PM or before 7 AM). However, cortisol spikes that are too high in the AM have the opposite effect: you might experience energy crashes throughout the day, unintentional weight gain, bloating, and drastic changes in metabolism. Ideally, your body regulates itself to maintain a healthy proportion of cortisol. But disruptions to this usually well-maintained system happen when an excess of stress, anxiety, agitation, or substances inflict changes on the body’s balance. 

How can you prevent a large spike of cortisol in the AM? 

So, we’ve established that cortisol is important: it gets you out of bed, keeps you driven, and helps you prioritize tasks and obligations. But, we also know that too much of a cortisol spike results in lethargy, erratic energy bursts, burn out, and metabolic imbalances. So the question remains--how can we ensure that our cortisol peaks at a normal level? Here are some expert-backed, fact-based tips that’ll help you optimize your cortisol levels.

@briannafornes_ 5 steps in my morning routine to help lower cortisol levels & limit stress/anxiety! Taking these steps has positively impacted me & are all great ways to manage stress especially when you first wakeup! These steps/habits really set the tone for the day. If you want to make a change for the better you have to start, what are you waiting for? 🫶🏼🌞⏰ #morningroutine #5stepmorningroutine #morninghabits #healthyhabits #morningroutinevlog #howtolowercortisol #lowercortisollevels #stressmanagement #healthylifestyle ♬ original sound - Brianna 🦋

Don’t immediately reach for caffeine

This is some of the most common advice in wellness circles: don’t drink coffee within an hour of waking up. We know this is a huge ask...how else is your body supposed to wake up! Try it for a week, see if you feel a difference. Your caffeine crash probably won’t be as dramatic, given your body is used to a concurrent cortisol and caffeine crash around mid-day. Plus, holding off on caffeine will complement the natural spike of AM cortisol in a way that won’t leave you feeling exhausted after a few hours.  

Try to not scroll upon waking up--this includes news sources, social media, and games

Instead, opt for sunlight, brief meditation, journaling, or stretching. Instead of inundating yourself with information and harsh blue light, give your brain time to adjust. Screen time elicits a certain kind of “alert” brainwave, which in turn affects cortisol levels. By saving screen time for when you’re entirely alert, your system isn’t “jolted awake” by a sudden change in activity and stimulation levels. 

Take care of your gut

This includes consuming probiotics, or foods containing gut-friendly bacteria. Eating a diverse diet--one that prioritizes whole foods, meeting suggested macros and daily vitamin/nutrient intake, and consistency--will invariably lower cortisol levels. Instead of restricting foods, prioritize everything in moderation: your body will be sated and won’t be suspended in fight-or-flight mode. 

Set intentions for your day

Although not physiologically related to decreasing cortisol levels, setting intentions can help with time management, tracking the productivity of your day, and setting aside time to reflect and conceptualize. In turn, this may help with resisting the urge to scroll, drink coffee, or ruminate about the day ahead. 

Consistently exercise

Although this might seem counterintuitive, as exercise tends to raise cortisol levels, daily exercise actually stabilizes the peaks and lulls of cortisol. This means that a normal spike in cortisol--say, you’ve nearly missed the train--wouldn’t be as drastic as someone else who doesn’t engage in a cortisol-stabilizing activity. 

Maxie Elise

Prioritize a consistent sleep pattern

This advice, although frequently given, often gets overlooked in terms of its utility. Did you know that if you knock out the second your head hits the pillow it's due to chronic sleep deprivation, and you most likely aren't getting REM sleep? Because we know that cortisol spikes roughly two hours after waking, it’s important to wake up around the same time every day. This means that although sleeping in on the weekends might be tempting, you’re usurping the healthy routine you’ve established during the week. Your cortisol spikes will become sporadic and less stable.

Although not completely in our control, cortisol levels are related to routine, intentional mindset shifts, and consistency. Understanding the physiology and utility of cortisol can help you optimize its effects!

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