Cortisol is one of the most important elements of the human body and as a woman with PCOS, you need to understand it. Why? For so many reasons! But mostly, because cortisol effects PCOS in a profound way and because women with PCOS have been found to have higher levels of cortisol than people without PCOS. And, you can do something about it.
SO WHAT IS CORTISOL?
Cortisol is a powerful hormone released by your body in response to stress. It helps you to handle stress. It's actually an incredible hormone that helps you to survive in dangerous situations - it is essential for the fight or flight mechanism to activate in your body. It causes your body to have an increase in blood glucose levels so you have the energy to survive the situation, to handle the stress and to recover from injury.
SO WHY DON'T WE LOVE CORTISOL?
We do love cortisol! But our bodies don't love having it around 24/7.
Unfortunately, for many of us, our stressful lifestyles are causing our bodies to release cortisol too frequently.
Cortisol is being released as we sit at our desk freaking out over a deadline. It's being released as we lie in bed at night listing off the mountain of things we need to do the next day. It's being released as we sit in traffic watching the clock tick closer and closer to your appointment time.
And what does this mean? It means that every time we feel this intense stress, cortisol is causing our bodies to increase our blood sugar levels to give us the energy to make it through the situation...but the reality is that we are sitting at our desk, lying in our bed or sitting in our car...and we are not using that energy at all. This is leading to many health conditions, including PCOS.
WHAT DOES CORTISOL HAVE TO DO WITH PCOS?
Women with PCOS have been found to have higher levels of cortisol than people without PCOS. And it's not surprising when you look at the symptoms that can be caused by high cortisol levels:
- hirsutism (facial hair)
- irregular menstrual cycles
- weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face
- digestive issues
- difficulty sleeping
- crave unhealthy foods
- low libido
These symptoms occur because high levels of cortisol effect our hormonal system and can cause an increase in testosterone, insulin resistance and difficulty responding to other hormones in your body such as progesterone and the thyroid hormones.
This leads me to one of the most important things to know about cortisol -
Cortisol is formed in part from PROGESTERONE.
Women with PCOS can have a hard time producing enough progesterone, resulting in difficulties ovulating, irregular cycles and potential miscarriage. So when your body is stressed and needs to create cortisol to try to relieve that stress, it will use progesterone for that purpose, DEPLETING your progesterone levels
If we summarise the above what I'm really saying is, cortisol can be linked to almost every
PCOS symptom that exists.
And PCOS aside, high cortisol levels can lead to serious conditions like Cushings Syndrome and Heart Disease.
Thank the tide we can turn this around! Feel excited that you are learning this information because making changes to decrease your cortisol levels could actually have a huge impact on your PCOS symptoms. This is a good moment for you! So here it is:
5 WAYS TO MANAGE YOUR CORTISOL LEVELS AND IMPROVE YOUR PCOS
Sleep is one of the most powerful elements of human life. And yet many of us fail to prioritise it. And, when we have sleep issues, many of us fail to put the necessary effort into fixing them.
The benefits of getting adequate sleep are many but to stay on point - inadequate sleep causes your cortisol levels to increase the following evening. This can become a downward spiral because high levels of cortisol at bedtime makes it hard for us to fall asleep :-/ it's a tricky one. If you think you are getting inadequate sleep, I recommend you focus on fixing it. Try to make it a priority.
Adequate sleep can be achieved by going to bed at 10pm (11pm latest) and getting 8–9 hours of restful sleep. We are all different, so we each need to find our personal perfection here, but this guideline will help.
Some ways to improve your sleep include removing artificial light and noise from your bedroom, avoiding using your phone before going to sleep and practising meditation, mindfulness or relaxation at bedtime.
2. Meditation, mindfulness or relaxation
Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation are three different but connected practices that can improve your health on many levels. Most notably, they can help you to reduce stress and therefore, reduce the frequent release and high levels of cortisol in your body.
I encourage you to explore these three practices and find one that suits you. Relaxation is the practice of consciously letting go of tension in the physical body, thus relaxing the mind (very good for letting go of the days stresses). Mindfulness is the practice of being aware and present to what you are doing in the moment, releasing you of worries about the past or future and bringing ease and comfort to the present (very good for avoiding feelings of stress altogether). Meditation is the practice of withdrawing your senses from the external environment and bringing your awareness inside, creating the opportunity for deep rejuvenation and bliss (very good for improving your general approach to stress).
The beauty of these three practices is that they can be done in many ways, in many places and they can all put you in a state of deep relaxation and comfort, with powerful effects on your health.
Yoga’s effect on PCOS has been studied and, when practised regularly, it has shown an incredible ability to improve symptoms of PCOS. Specifically, results have shown it to reduce anxiety and improve menstrual frequency, testosterone levels, the LH:FSH ratio, metabolism, hirsutism, cholesterol levels and
It is also a lovely antidote to stress.
Many forms of yoga are relaxing, helping you to leave stress behind. But more profoundly, yoga can teach you a kind of patience that helps you feel more comfortable in stressful situations. Yoga teaches you to slow down, calm your mind and act with purpose.
There are many yoga classes offered everywhere around the world. I recommend a slow, restorative, nurturing yoga and one that has a focus on nurturing the sacred feminine can be particularly beneficial for
women with PCOS.
4. Regular NURTURING exercise
The keyword here is "nurturing". Although high intensity exercise is very good for many people, it isn't necessarily good for a woman with PCOS or a person who has high cortisol levels.
Intense exercise can, in some people, cause inflammation and can stress the body into a state where it releases too much cortisol. Yep, cortisol is freakin everywhere. If you are someone who works their butt off only to have not worked your butt off at all, this could be why.
I recommend you just try doing a more nurturing exercise such as yoga, walking or slow but steady swimming. This will still cause your body to release cortisol but in a more controlled and even way. And, because you are exercising, you will burn off the glucose that is released into your blood system from the normal amounts of cortisol. This will actually train your body to handle cortisol in the correct way - by releasing a small amount and then burning it off.
5. An anti-inflammatory diet
It has now been found that many women with PCOS also have chronic inflammation.
Signs of chronic inflammation include joint pain, weight around the middle, headaches, skin conditions, digestive problems and fatigue.
Cortisol has the amazing ability to fight inflammation. But, when we have chronic inflammation, cortisol is released more and more to try and combat the inflammation...resulting in high levels of cortisol.
An anti-inflammatory diet can help you to reduce your inflammation and thereby reduce your cortisol levels. Coincidentally, an anti-inflammatory diet is also a great way of eating for women with PCOS.
Avoid sugar, trans-fats, refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta and try not to have too much caffeine or alcohol.
Eat plenty of fiber, protein, healthy fats like nuts, seeds and avocado, probiotic foods like sauerkraut and a large array of colourful fruits and vegetables.
More than anything, don't feel overwhelmed by all of this. If you feel you need to get your cortisol levels under control, it's ok. Just take it one step at a time - you can only go up from here! Just try one or two things out and see what suits you. For example, I can barely stand relaxation practices, but I love meditation and mindfulness! You will find what works for you and you will improve your PCOS.
If you want more ideas for reducing stress in a nurturing way, The 2019 PCOS Journal is a day planner I have created to help women with PCOS manage, track, understand and take ownership of their journey. It is filled with nurturing ideas for reducing stress and improving your health. It will empower you with knowledge about PCOS, about your treatment options and about YOUR journey. YOUR body. YOUR PCOS.
Let me know how you go and please share with me any other techniques you have for
managing your cortisol levels!