If you're a woman over 45, you will probably have a tonne of responsibilities. A senior level career, ageing parents, children/ teenagers, friendships and relationships can all come with varying levels of stress. On top of this, the change in your hormonal profile, which typically starts in your forties can affect both your physical health and your mental ability to manage stress.
The hormone cortisol supports the body in many ways, but high cortisol levels, especially when sustained over long periods, can lead to weight gain, digestive problems, irritability and affect your overall health risks.
In this article we outline what cortisol is, symptoms of high cortisol and how to lower cortisol levels to protect your mental and physical health by making sure you have some stress management tactics in place. Let's go!
What is cortisol and the relationship with stress
The adrenal glands produce cortisol a steroid hormone and adrenaline, which are commonly known as stress hormones. Cortisol a stress hormone helps, in the right quantities, to balance the body and supports multiple bodily functions which include
- Regulating your body’s stress response
- Regulating blood sugar
- Lowering inflammation
- Regulating blood pressure
- Regulating your sleep
- Helping to control metabolism
Cortisol and chronic stress
Chronic or long term stress - prolonged periods of high cortisol, can cause havoc with your bodies processes. When adrenal glands are constantly pumping out stress hormones they can't produce your back up supply of oestrogen which can make menopause symptoms worse.
When you consistently have high levels of cortisol, it can have a negative impact on your health.Chronic stress can lead to serious health risks such as diabetes, insulin resistance and mental health disorders. The habits which are associated with stress such as drinking too much alcohol, smoking, comfort eating and not enough exercise can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Cortisol can interfere with the natural balance of your hormones, increase your menopausal symptoms and contribute to fat deposits around the abdomen which are also increased by falling levels of oestrogen.
Symptoms of high cortisol
If you're a typically busy woman the signs of high cortisol levels can go unnoticed as they can build slowly build up over a number of years. Excessive cortisol levels can lead to insomnia, brain fog, bloating, constipation, weight gain and severe fatigue. Other symptoms can include
- A flushed face
- A rounded face
- High blood pressure
- Low sex drive
- Bruising easily
- Slower healing
- Muscle weakness
- A weakened immune system
- Thinning skin
Can you measure your cortisol levels?
Your blood levels of cortisol will naturally vary throughout the day. Generally, cortisol is higher in the morning ( your wake up call), and then falls throughout the day tapering off towards the evening so you can sleep.
Blood, urine or saliva test can detect whether your cortisol levels are too high or too low. Blood cortisol levels reflect both protein-bound cortisol and free cortisol whereas a saliva or urine test only tests free cortisol levels. Blood tests can be done with your healthcare provider or via a home based lab test.
Normal values for a blood sample taken at 8 in the morning are 5 to 25 mcg/dL or 140 to 690 nmol/L.
How to lower your cortisol levels
There is not much you can do to prevent stressful situations, it's just a part of life, but there are many things you can do when it comes to stress management. Stress reduction will support your mental well being and keep your cortisol levels in check protecting your overall health.
There is no one guaranteed method as everyone is different, as are their sources of stress but here are some tactics which have studies behind them.
Knowing what your stress triggers are and recognising your own signs of stress is a good place to start. Mindfulness includes breathing exercises and is a technique you can learn which involves noticing what's happening to you in the present moment, without any judgement.
One of the aims of mindfulness is to help you feel calmer which can help to lower cortisol. Mindfulness takes commitment and practice - learning it can be done for free, through paid apps and formal courses.
Maintain A Regular Bedtime Routine
Sleep helps the brain and body relax and repair. It plays an important role in cortisol regulation and blood sugar regulation. Sleep also helps when it comes to balancing the hormones which control appetite -leptin and ghrelin which help to maintain a healthy weight.
Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine with 7-9 hours is super important for your mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation can lead to mental health issues, irritability, low mood, low energy and poor concentration levels as well as the ability to function during the day.
Many women over 40 will experience sleep disruption due to changes in their oestrogen and progesterone levels. Progesterone is natures sedative, one of your natural sleep hormones. Lower levels of this can impair your ability to drift off and stay asleep.
Lower stress levels with daily physical activity
The evidence we need to be physically active is overwhelming when it comes to your health outlook. it has been medically proven regular exercise decreases your risk of type 2 diabetes by 50% and your risk of dementia by 30%
Research also suggests exercise can lift your mood and lower your stress levels, which means less cortisol. NHS suggests adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week spread exercise evenly over 4 to 5 days a week, or every day.
Walk - it's a brilliant stress buster
Walking outside, both brisk spurts and longer slower walking is an easy ( and FREE) way to get active and help to get your stress levels down.
According to Dr Mindy Peltz, walking is good for getting rid of elevated cortisol levels. If you have a stressful situation which causes your cortisol to spike she advises the best thing to do is to get up and walk to get rid of it. If you are stressed and seated, that cortisol is stored as belly fat.
If you can recognise when you're stressed then you know when it is especially important to move! Even walking up and down the office, your hallway, round the block can help to make a difference.
Rethink consistent high intensity exercise
When you're in your thirties intense exercise like HIT and running can be hugely satisfying. When you're in your forties and fifties though, rather than stimulate your endorphins and make you feel great too much high intensity exercise can increase your cortisol levels further.
Combining intense exercise with low intensity aerobic exercise and muscle building exercises will still help to keep your metabolism fired up and won't contribute to already excess cortisol levels.
Make time for a hobby
Research suggests that a little 'me time' - taking up an enjoyable hobby can help to lower both blood pressure and cortisol levels. When is the last time you did something just because you enjoyed it or explore doing something you're interested in? Lower cortisol levels and a little more joy in your week - you should schedule that in - seriously
Maintain a healthy diet
You'll already know as a woman over 40 you need a health balanced diet to feel your best. If you're struggling with symptoms of anxiety and hot flashes then taking a look at your caffeine and alcohol intake is a must. There is evidence to suggest they can make these perimenopause and menopause symptoms worse.
The common diet advice is a nutrient dense diet with healthy fats, protein, leafy vegetables, whole grains with the occasional treat of dark chocolate you'll have read before. But did you know that certain foods can help reduce cortisol levels?
Stress-relieving foods include fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats because they contain omega 3 and magnesium which help to metabolise cortisol. These anti inflammatory foods include fortified whole grains, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate and spinach, avocados, salmon, sardines, chicken, eggs and walnuts.
Gut health and stress
The enteric nervous system that regulates our gut is often called your body's “second brain.
The ENS is in constant communication with the brain via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is constantly passing signals back and forth and it is accepted by many nutritionists and doctors that the gut can influence our decisions, moods and general wellbeing the same way the brain can. In animal studies stress has been shown to inhibit the vagus nerve’s ability to send signals, resulting in a range of gastrointestinal issues.
It is recommended your daily fibre intake should be 30g as part of a balanced diet. Most adults get around 20g. Dietary fibre is essential for your gut to work normally because it increases the good bacteria in your gut which in turn supports your immunity. Dietary fibre is the part of fruit and plants you consume which don't get digested in your small intestine. Probiotics and prebiotics can also hep to support your gut health.
Ashwagandha is an ancient adaptogenic herb which promotes balance in the body and helps it to adapt to stressful situations. Ashwagandha KSM-66 is a branded, concentrated full-spectrum extract of the herb with 24 double blind, randomized placebo controlled clinical trials behind it.
These trials show it has been clinically proven to
- Reduce stress and enhance quality of sleep
- Enhance memory and cognition
- Increase immune function
Ashwaghanda KSM66 is used in menopause supplements, protein shakes and meal replacement shakes for weight loss, anxiety, brain fog and gut health such as Eve Biology.
You can't avoid stressful situations but what you can do is prepare for and recover from them with deep breathing exercises. Studies suggest that regular deep breathing can promote relaxation and manage stress by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure
There are different versions of deep breathing exercise which can be done sitting, standing or lying on your back. These include box breathing, alternate nostril breathing and the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
Based on an ancient yogic breathing method called pranayama this technique is can help with stress and can also help you to fall asleep.Your tongue should be resting gently against the roof of your mouth during the exercise, just behind your top front teeth.
- First step - breathe in through your nose for a count of four and hold it for a count of seven.
- Then, breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight, pushing the air out of your mouth with pursed lips.
- Repeat the exercise 4 times.
The bottom line
The impact of stress for women in midlife is significant. Stress raises your cortisol levels temporarily which isn't a problem but chronically high cortisol levels for prolonged periods are detrimental to both your mental health and your overall physical health.
Although you can't avoid stressful situations, when it comes to lowering cortisol levels there are tactics which you can try to restore your body's sense of calm which include breathing exercises, taking time for yourself, supplement support, a balanced diet and regular exercise.