The Cortisol Switch

Here’s the scenario. When you’re stressed, you feel the positive vibe of cortisol – the rise of energy, the focus, the charge, the ascent. Cortisol is the main stress hormone made in your adrenal glands and it’s designed to get you out of danger. It has 3 main jobs: raise blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run or fight), raise blood pressure, and modulate immune function.


But here’s the rub…The Cortisol Switch. You body ceases to register the positive aspects of cortisol, and you switch to the negative aspects of cortisol. It’s like when you drink regular coffee and feel like a rockstar, for 20 minutes. Then you get hit the wall, get all jittery and anxious. Thoughts erode. Blood sugar drops. Acidity increases. You get heavy and dumb. Over time, high cortisol, when sustained, is linking to high blood pressure, diabetes, increased belly fat, brain changes such as atrophy of the hippocampus (where memory is synthesized), depression, insomnia, and poor wound healing. In fact, fat cells in the belly have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells elsewhere, so you just keep reinforcing the spare tire as your cortisol climbs and stays high. It’s not pretty.


Cortisol is like that. It’s an impulsive little hormone that makes you feel smart and on your game one moment, and then turns on you. And the positive side of cortisol, prior to the switch, can be addictive.

Take a look at the above chart 'Theories on Allostasis' - the normal stress reponse is, when stress is a trigger, cortisol rises and then falls during a recovery period. If chronic stress is present, initially most people can handle it. Your cortisol will peak and fall and peak and fall (oscillating up in a peak and falling during recovery). When the body begins to overload you will not be able to adapt as quickly to the perceived chronic stress and cortisol will begin to remain high.

It is really hard to get away from stress – it is everywhere. And yet many people struggle with a stress-crazed life and the downstream effects of the Cortisol Switch – of which, conventional medicine had little to no answer. One doctor may tell you to exercise more (which is the worse advice when the cortisol switch has occurred).

What can be done about the problem of cortisol, and the shadow side of this important stress hormone? I’ve got 5 practices for you. (NOT tips, because tips are things you do once and then they fall by the wayside. Practices are something you take on more fully, and integrate into your day — ultimately becoming a habit.)

1. Eat nutrient dense food. Avoid refined carbs and sugar like the plague. Jonesin’ for sugar or alcohol? It could be a symptom of high cortisol. Don’t go there. It just keeps spiraling downward and doesn’t make you feel better.

2. Omega 3. You know it’s a good idea. So why don’t you take it? 2000 mg per day lowers your cortisol level. Source from fish (not vegan) or algae (vegan)

3. Contempletive practice is nonnegotiable. This is especially true if you are struggling with your weight. A recent study from Harvard - The University of California at San Francisco, showed that obese women who began a mindfulness program and stuck with it for 4 months lost belly fat.

4. Adaptive exercise. Running raises cortisol. Switching to yoga and pilates will make all the difference in your weight

5. Rhodiola is queen when cortisol is high. Rhodiola is an herb and one of the forms of ginseng, and it’s the best proven botanical treatment for lowering cortisol.

6. When you are resentful, you probably need self care. I’m paraphrasing but you get the point. I love this. It shifts us out of a place of blame. If you start to feel resentment directed toward your family - take the feeling of resentment as a message that your self-care is not what it could be. Plus, your self care is your responsibility, not theirs. Only you can manage your self care. Don’t expect others to create the space for it. Claim it for yourself. Claim you minimally effective self care, every day.

7. Set Boundaries. No one cheers when you set a boundary. Get used to it. People love it when you overprovide, overpromise, and over deliver. That may be with your spouse, kids, work, clients. Notice it. Own it. Change it. The change starts with healthy boundaries and all those people who enjoy your overproviding will not be cheering you on as you take from them the things they can do for themselves, and need to be doing for themselves.

Let’s get back to how cortisol, the main stress hormone produced by your adrenal glands in your mid-back, brings you down and ramps up your risk of serious disease, and more importantly, what you can do about it.

When stress is not managed skillfully, and becomes chronic and repetitive, cortisol rises too high. Let’s review - cortisol has 3 main jobs in your body, raise blood sugar (as fuel); raise blood pressure (so you can run from the tiger your body thinks is chasing you); and modulate your immune system.

Take a look at the above chart 'Progression of Stages of Adrenal Exhaustion.' In a 24 hour period cortisol should be lowest around 2AM, start to peak between 4-6AM and then fall across the day. As adrenal fatigue progresses, cortisol will remain high and DHEA will start to drop. The body will begin to be less responsive to the chronically high cortisol and cortisol production will begin to lower and then flat line.


Here are some of the problems linked with excess cortisol.

  • Diabetes/Pre-diabetes. Cortisol’s main job is to raise glucose levels, and even small bumps in cortisol, such as when drinking a cup of regular coffee, can raise blood sugar and increase insulin resistance
  • Learn to be less reactive to your environment. Perceived stress is stress. If you do not perceive something as stressful, it will not have an impact on you.
  • Sucky mood. Persistent stress causes your body to increase the production of brain chemicals, and initially you make too many “excitatory” neurotransmitters, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. Over time your back stock runs dry, and you begin to run out of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Then you find yourself mildly depressed, unable to focus, and wondering what      happened to your battery charge. Maybe sleep and motivation start to      worsen. Not pretty, but also not a good time to start a prescription      antidepressant (unless severe or you/your doctor decide it’s needed) — you need to work on more effective stress management and correcting your cortisol (see tips below), not crank up your serotonin with a happy pill! (BTW, the “happy” pill was recently shown to increase breast and ovarian cancer, which you can now add to the list of side effects including weight gain, stroke, and libido hijack.)
  • More body fat. Too much cortisol makes you fat, especially at your belly. Unfortunately, the belly fat has 4 times the number of cortisol receptors, so you get into a vicious cycle of excess cortisol creating more body fat, which gets stimulated by persistently high cortisol levels.
  • Slow wound  healing. When cortisol is high, it takes you longer to recover from injury, like a cut or even a sports injury. Your immune system is too jacked up to work effectively.
  • Lousy Sleep. If you measure the cortisol levels of insomniacs, they are way increased.

Ok, Ok, enough of the doom and gloom. Let’s turn this around and focus on more tips that I have for right-sizing your cortisol. Here are 5 more.


1. Get a massage. You’re probably thinking, “Duh!” but there was just a rigorous, randomized study showing that massage lowers your cortisol. Now if we could just get all insurance to pay for it!

2. Alternate nostril breathing. I do this 3 times per day. The Sanskrit term is “Nadi Shodhana” or channel clearing breath. If you need to learn how to do it,. This is not woo woo — there’s is robust science showing that when you breath in this way, your breath crosses the center line, builds synapses, leverages neuroplasticity, helps you see the bigger picture, and increases problem solving. And, by the way, it’s shown in a randomized trial to lower blood pressure and heart rate, which means it reverses signs of stress.

3. L-Theanine. Shown to calm down the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”. The idea is that we need sacred balance between the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). Dose of L-theanine is 250 to 400 mg per day.

4. Lock into aromas that trigger the “calm response.” certain scents can help you calm down, such as cedar wood, frankincense and sandalwood. These scents travel from your nose straight into your brain, and tap into your hypothalamus to trigger a calm response. This is crucial, because you can’t be in both a calm and a stress response. It’s like a toggle switch. If you can increase the flip of the switch to the calm response, by any means necessary, you can linger there and lower cortisol when it is excessively high.

5. Wean off coffee. It’s like a high-interest loan that you need to pay back. Don’t become a debtor. Use coffee medicinally or not at all. It’s very hard for your adrenal glands to be the full “repair” conversation if you are taking out a daily loan against them. There’s no chance to heal.

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  • Hi Angela -

    I am happy to find this post today and really need this informtion and reminders right now.  I am under a large amount of stress and my memory is horrible as well as sleep problems and irritability.  This post is speaking to me!  In addition to the actions, food, and supplements already mentioned here, are there any additional supplements that you would recommend to assist with memory and concentration?  

    Thanks so much,


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