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Adrenal Fatigue, anxiety, Wellness

Understanding Cortisol: How to Manage Stress and Improve Your Well-Being

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Adrenal Fatigue, anxiety, Wellness

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How would you rate your daily stress level on a scale of 1 to 10? 

If your number is high, you aren’t alone. The American Psychiatric Association found that 34% of adults are completely overwhelmed by stress on most days.  

We all have different stressors—health, financial, family, mental illness—the impact on our bodies is consistent: stress affects our ability to function. 

You might be wondering: Why does stress have to control me? 

Stress manifests as the hormone cortisol, so it causes a physiological reaction in the body. This means that stress doesn’t just go away from “getting out of your head”; but it does mean that there are solutions through diet, exercise, supplementation, healthcare and wellness treatments. In this blog, we’ll discuss what cortisol is, how it affects the body, and how you can target it. 

What is Cortisol? 

Cortisol is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands (above the kidney) that sends messages to our brain about motivation, mood, and fear. With those messages, cortisol decides how the body should respond and protect itself. Thus, cortisol has other roles such as: 

  • Managing how body uses carbs, fats, protein 
  • Controlling inflammation 
  • Regulating blood pressure 
  • Increasing blood sugar 
  • Controlling sleep / wake 
  • Boosting energy and then balancing after  


What is the Function of Cortisol? 

Cortisol often gets a bad reputation—no one likes to be stressed! But stress is natural, and cortisol tries to be there to protect us.  

For example, imagine you’re on a deserted island with no food, water, or knowledge about when you’ll be saved. Cortisol will kick in, slow your appetite, and change how your body stores food so you can direct your focus on other survival aspects. 

A more realistic example: have you ever looked back on a difficult time in your life and wondered how you continued to work? This is a time when your cortisol pumped you with extra energy. 

What Does High Cortisol Feel Like? 

High cortisol can feel debilitating. It can manifest into symptoms like: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Headache 
  • Digestion issues 
  • Memory / concentration issues 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Weight gain 

How Does High Cortisol Cause Adverse Symptoms? 

Cortisol affects almost every organ system in the body. The hormone reorganizes systems to adapt to threat, but it may not always be for the best.  

Why Cortisol Affects Sleep 

Cortisol naturally follows the circadian rhythm our sleep and wake cycle follow. In the morning, our cortisol is ideally at peak to get ready for the day. At night, cortisol is ideally at its lowest.  

That natural cycle is thrown off when our cortisol is consistently too high. Studies have shown that high cortisol can lead to shorter sleep time, waking up in the middle of the night, and insomnia. And get this — when you’re running on low sleep, your body produces even more cortisol! 

Why Cortisol Causes Headaches 

There is no singular reason why we get headaches; dehydration, hunger, fatigue, fluctuating blood sugar, fast heart rate, and the list goes on. All these triggers are also symptoms of high cortisol.  

Why Cortisol Increases Risk of Heart Disease 

The University of Rochester Medical Center found data that suggests that high levels of cortisol are linked to increased cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate. All these factors are also risk factors for heart disease. 

Why Cortisol Causes Weight Gain 

Normal levels of cortisol handle balancing insulin, which then controls blood sugar levels. However, too much cortisol causes a disruption in this process. Without balanced insulin, blood sugar levels are also irregulated.  

This irregularity can cause insulin resistance—a condition when your fat and muscles don’t respond to insulin. The non-response can cause weight gain because of the inefficient storage. 

Why Cortisol Affects Concentration 

Losing concentration from high cortisol levels is a culmination of many symptoms—lack of sleep, headaches, anxiety, and disruption in the digestive system.  

How to Bring Cortisol Levels Down 

High cortisol levels can feel like an overwhelming cycle, but there are solutions through diet, exercise, supplements, wellness practices, and healthcare.  

What Foods Lower Cortisol 

Lower cortisol with a balanced diet that’s rich in fiber, omega 3, and probiotics.  


  • Lentils 
  • Beans 
  • Nuts 
  • Seeds 
  • Healthy whole grains 


  • Seafood 
  • Algae 
  • Chia seeds 
  • Flax seeds 


  • Yogurt 
  • Kombucha 
  • Fermented vegetables 
  • Turmeric 

What Supplements Lower Cortisol 

Supplements can lower cortisol levels by relaxing the mind, muscles, and stimulating sleep.  

Cortisol managing supplements include: 

How to Exercise to Lower Cortisol 

Exercise is a proven solution to lowering stress, but not all exercise is effective for those with high cortisol. If you’re suffering from high cortisol, try low-impact exercise such as: 

  • Yoga 
  • Pilates 
  • Tai Chi 
  • Walking 

Avoid intense workouts like high intensity interval training (HIIT) or heavy weightlifting, these can increase cortisol levels even more. 

Red Light Therapy 

Red light therapy is a non-invasive, soothing, and gentle LED treatment that can be done in as little as 20 minutes. LED light lowers cortisol by relieving pain, relaxing muscles, and increasing blood circulation. 


Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine used to support wellness and improve mental and physical well-being. Needles are placed into the skin to activate an energy called qi. According to traditional Chinese medicine, qi helps regulate and move systems in the body to keep us well. This ancient practice is credited for stress management, lowering inflammation, and supporting internal systems. 


We often hold stress in the head and neck, and massages release that tension. A massage can also promote internal healing, decrease pain, and relax muscles for lower cortisol levels. 

Include a Professional 

Speaking to a mental health professional may help work through stressors and create actionable solutions. 

It’s also possible that your high cortisol levels are rooted in a deeper health issue. In this case, a functional health provider may also be an effective option. A functional health provider will take a detailed assesment of your symptoms and lifestyle for a root-cause approach to your health. They may also recommend lab testing, which can give insight into deficiencies and genetic predispositions.  

High Cortisol Isn’t Forever 

Stress is an inevitable part of life, affecting us both mentally and physically. But by understanding and managing cortisol, we can mitigate the effects. 

Cortisol is a hormone that affects almost every organ system, so the only way to beat stress is to accept reality. We can make a change in our cortisol levels through diet, exercise, supplements, wellness, and healthcare.  

Alive and Well is a sanctuary for health and wellness where anyone with high cortisol levels can find relief. Whether that be from our wellness center including acupuncture, massage, and red-light therapy, or from our functional medicine providers, we offer solution-based care for you.  












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