Cortisol is one of those "good/bad" hormones. Too much at the wrong time of day and you won't fall asleep or, you wake up in the middle of the night. Too little in the morning and your energy level is worthless and you can’t get out of bed, too little during a workout and your performance drops.
What exactly is cortisol?
It is a hormone produced by the Adrenal glands in response to stress. When a stressful event occurs the brain releases a chemical called ACTH into the blood which then enters the adrenal glands and tells the glands to release cortisol. Now in the “caveman” days our body used this as our “fight or flight” mechanism to handle extremely stressful events, like be chased by a saber toothed tiger. The release of cortisol and adrenalin at the time we were being chased by the tiger gave us a better chance to get away and survive. However, nowadays we have far less saber toothed tigers chasing us and many more cell phones ringing, emails to send and children to take from one place to another.
The problem with our lifestyle now is that all these small stressors consistently task the adrenal glands, they really do not know the difference between a tiger chasing you and being late to work. In the past we would only use these hormones in times of extreme stress, now it is happening on a daily basis.
As Charles Poliquin, a world renowned strength coach and developer of the Charles Poliquin website, points out in his great video on cortisol, one of the differences between now and a hundred years ago is that we have 500 times more stress than our ancestors, which means our adrenal glands our unable to keep up with all this stress we have.
Simply, we are burned out.
So what are some of the steps necessary to keep our cortisol at a healthy level?
Keep your cortisol low at night.
Keeping cortisol low in the evening is crucial to a restful night sleep.
If cortisol is high at night, you will be unable to fall asleep and most likely will wake up in the middle of the night.
If you workout at night it is imperative to drop cortisol quickly so you can rest and recover.
Here are some effective supplements for getting cortisol lower at night:
Vitamin C (2grams post exercise)
Magnesium in the chelated form. Best ones are magnesium glycinate, fumarte, orotate, or taurate
If digestion is an issue try topical magnesium, a great product and one I use on my kids
L-Glycine is an amino acid that reduces cortisol and also detoxifies the body, you need about 5-15 grams and you need to slowly work your way up to this by starting at 1-2 grams
L-Taurine relaxes the body and increase Serotonin production and GABA
Also, turning off the TV and other electronics a half hour before bed and using that time to read or plan your next day has been proven to lower cortisol.
Try these in the evening to unwind and especially if you exercise at night to rebalance you cortisol rhythm
Low or No Energy in the Morning
Lets talk about you zombies in the morning.
Cortisol is a low grade form or adrenalin and elevates right before waking in order to naturally wake you up, the spike in cortisol before you awake is what naturally wakes you up.
However, if cortisol does not spike up in the morning you will be very tired and groggy, it will take 5 cups of coffee and a good slap in the face to get moving.
If you suffer from low morning energy here is how to get cortisol elevated in the AM
1. Try Licorice (no not the twizzler variety) Licorice will correct improper Cortisol rhythm, improve digestion (a common adrenal side effect)
2. Ashwaganda is another great too for Adrenal health and works great with Licorice and supports the “brain to adrenal gland” chemical reaction.
3. Acetyl L-Carnitine a form of carnitine that does a host of things, One being improve brain function and energy. It also makes fish oil more effective. Carnitine also helps balance cortisol, if it is too low it will bring it up and if it is too high it will help neutralize the excess cortisol
4. Take Pantethine, it is the stable form of vitamin B5 which is a precursor to Acetyl-CO-A a precursor to energy production and will help with unhealthy cholesterol levels
Also, great for people who have low cortisol and low DHEA symptoms
5. Eat a Meat and Nuts breakfast, as Charles Poliquin describes, eating high protein and healthy fats will not only spark you energy but also increase dopamine, the “feel good” hormone which increase energy throughout the day. Read more about it on his website (www.charlespoliquin.com)
How to fix interrupted sleep:
What time did you wake up last night? Hopefully, you did not at all. Improper sleep is one of the leading causes of chronic adrenal problems.
First some keys to a restful night sleep.
1. Sleep in a “cave” our bodies’ sleep the deepest and growth hormone is released the highest with a very dark room. All lights should be off and all blinds completely closed.
2. Never sleep with the TV on, this should be a no brainer
3. Doing relaxing activities, such as reading or planning your next day will help put you mind at ease which will help you relax easier.
4. Frequent awakenings during the night can be a sign of extreme magnesium deficiency. Remember magnesium will help lower cortisol, if you do not have adequate levels of magnesium your body cannot relax and remove excess cortisol. Start by taking some at diner and before bed. Chelated is a must with magnesium.
The times you frequently wake up at night can also reflect internal problems that need to be addressed
Chinese Medicine and other forms of alternative medicine have determined certain times we wake up can mean specific internal problems
Here are the times:
Waking Before 1am= poor blood sugar handling and poor overall quality diet.
If you have a poor overall diet and your blood sugar is all over the place then typically you will wake up not long after going to bed because of poor overall insulin health
Waking Between 1-3am= Poor Liver function, liver is working too hard to detoxify you and that increases metabolism=waking up. This is a well know Eastern Medicine philosophy and using Liver and Gallbladder detoxifying vitamins will help. Also Magnesium Glycinate is great for this.
Waking Between 3-5 AM= Lung Meridian and Oxidative Stress, Your antioxidant status is too low, very common during menopause. Increasing you antioxidant status, especially Vitamin E and Vitamin C will help tremendously with this. Also, take in more “green” of powdered fruit and veggie drinks.
Waking before 5-7AM= or right before you are to typically wake up= Sometimes triple warmer and poor thyroid function, eat more protein and detoxify. Could also, be poor Colon and Large Intestine health and increasing fiber and probiotics will help this.
Now these times are not “etched” in stone, this would be typical for someone who goes to bed between 9 and 11. If you go to bed at other times, the waking patterns will be changed somewhat.
Also, a common thought in Eastern Medicine is that the time between 11pm and 12am is when the body begins the “detoxifying process” and if you “miss” that window of time by staying up late, the process will not occur as effectively that night or not at all.
Let’s talk about a positive aspect of cortisol, the need for it during exercise. Cortisol is a necessary evil when it comes to exercise. You need it elevated during a workout to help “get you going” and to help increase energy. However, as soon as that workout is over, you need to do everything possible to get it lowered. You need to lower cortisol to start the recovery process after your workout and to help you body maintain a healthy level throughout the rest of the day.
Here are the best”bang for your buck” ways to reduce cortisol after a workout
Take 2 grams of vitamin C
Take Phosphatidyl-Serine, especially if you train the hardest at night. However, you need a lot of it and it is pricey. You will need about 800mg according to research.
L-Taurine is very effective and affordable, take 3-5 grams
Take Magnesium, any chelated form.
So, in a nutshell, cortisol is an extremely powerful and complex hormone. We need enough of it to get us through workouts and to wake us up in the mornings, and we need less of it to help us relax and sleep well at night. Unfortunately, our lifestyles are much more stressful now than ever in the past, and there are no more saber toothed tigers chasing us around, just constant cell phone calls and emails, this wears down our adrenal system and we ultimately end up over stressed. Our adrenal system is meant as our “fight or flight” response, yet far too often that response is constantly occurring and becoming less and less efficient.
Here are some great articles and tips to improve your cortisol and adrenal health
www.poliquingroup.com, has numerous articles
Robert Sapolsky’s book “Zebras don’t get ulcers”
And a great video that summarizes this information extremely well is found here: http://www.charlespoliquin.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Videos/Video/172/Cortisol
Also, all of these supplements I carry at my office, and I regularly prescribe them to my patients and biosignature clients. If you have any questions on this article or how to improve your adrenal health please email me at: email@example.com