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Stress, Cortisol & a Healthy Immune System
By Ethan Boldt
September 26, 2023
Stress, including all forms of stress, such as psychological stress, has been examined for how it can impact many facets of our life, such as the brain, sleep, performance, healthy weight management and more. But what about the immune system?
Although more research needs to be conducted, some recent research indicates that excessive stress, including higher levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, can impact the immune system in different ways. Can it be helpful or harmful? Let’s take a closer look, and also discuss why it’s important to keep cortisol levels in balance.
Following signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, the adrenal gland secretes cortisol, an essential glucocorticoid steroid hormone. Highest in the morning and lowest at night, cortisol is one of the main hormones we release when we're under any sort of pressure — when our "fight or flight response" kicks into gear.
While producing cortisol is a normal biological process and helps keep us motivated, awake, alert (including impacting brain fog) and responsive to our environment, when cortisol is not in balance, you and your body can feel it.
Why does the body occasionally get out of balance with its cortisol levels? Typically it’s due to some form of short-term, normal physical or emotional stress, a healthy lifestyle detour, too little sleep upon occasion, or other reasons. The truth is that life sometimes throws us off course, but it’s important to get back on course as soon as possible so that cortisol can remain in check.
While more studies need to be done, one study demonstrated how cortisol usually contributes to healthy inflammation levels and a healthy immune system, which is normal and is also why cortisol should remain in balance.
In short spurts, stress creates cortisol to help the body perform many different roles. The fight-or-flight response will temporarily shut down normal reproductive, digestive and immune system functions to focus on the immediate need at hand. This is both normal and healthy, and it’s also the very reason why healthy, balanced cortisol levels are important to overall health, including a healthy immune system.
The good news is that you can greatly help manage cortisol levels by changing your diet, exercise routine, sleep and stress levels. Here are some suggested steps to take.
As always, you should consult your healthcare professional prior to beginning any new dietary or lifestyle regimen, including dietary supplementation.
Following a diet low in processed foods and high in antioxidants, fiber and essential nutrients is key to balancing hormones, controlling your cravings and keeping you on the right track. These same strategies can also help with healthy adrenal support, boosting energy during the day and helping you sleep better at night.
Remove these types of foods from your diet:
high-sugar, high-glycemic foods (with many packaged foods, refined grain products, sugary drinks and snacks)
refined and trans fats
excessive caffeine and alcohol
Instead, switch to a low-glycemic diet, include healthy fats and proteins with every meal, and make sure to get enough fiber and phytonutrients by eating plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. A steady supply of nutrients like essential vitamins, trace minerals, healthy fats, electrolytes, amino acids and antioxidants all help your body handle life’s stressors better, therefore benefiting your entire body.
Some of the most useful foods for promoting healthy, balanced cortisol levels include vegetables; fruits; coconut or olive oil; nuts; seeds; lean proteins like eggs, fish and grass-fed beef; and probiotic foods (like yogurt, kefir or cultured veggies).
Certain mushroom supplements help promote energy and provide stress relief, while adaptogen herbs can help to promote healthy cortisol levels in some key ways. Overall, they can help balance hormones, support healthy inflammation levels and increase energy.
This supplement brings together several botanical and adaptogenic ingredients that help support a healthy response to stress, promote more restful sleep and mental relaxation, including reishi mushroom, passion flower, ashwagandha, lavender and hops.
Generally speaking, reishi and other mushrooms can help the body adapt to oxidative stress and work to support a variety of healthy body processes.
Like reishi mushroom, ashwagandha has long been prized for its overall stress-relieving effects. Ashwagandha especially offer benefits such as supporting a healthy response to stress, supporting restful sleep, boosting energy, reducing fatigue and enhancing focus and stamina.
Certain mushroom supplements such as Ancient Nutrition's Multi Mushroom Daily Immune Defense Tablets are also made with both ashwagandha and reishi.
This combination of organic cordyceps and ashwagandha is designed to support healthy energy and endurance. Not only does this tablet promote healthy energy and stamina, it helps support a healthy response to stress, promotes a positive mindset and supports immune system balance.
This cognitive support supplement was specially formulated to help support a healthy response to stress and promote a positive mindset, as well as support healthy energy and reduce fatigue. It uses a variety of ingredients to provide targeted support, including organic lion’s mane, bacopa brahmi, ashwagandha and ginkgo leaf.
Regular exercise (about 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week, depending on the intensity) is one of the best ways to manage stress, promote healthy, balanced cortisol levels, sleep better and aid normal metabolic functions. It’s important to avoid overtraining and overexerting yourself, which can actually cause even more cortisol to be released.
Yoga, for instance, has been shown to have similar benefits, reinforcing the “mind-body connection,” improving how people (especially women) feel about their bodies, helping with sleep and controlling anxiousness.
This practice has been shown to help train the brain and body to help turn off the stress response and promote more relaxation. And these benefits are possible without impairing alertness, concentration or memory.
Many studies show that daily meditation or even prayer for just 15 to 30 minutes can offer significant benefits for cortisol. Participating in a regular mindfulness-based stress reduction program also can offer significant reductions in cortisol and stress-related issues and help support a healthy immune system.
Some studies show that physical settings play a role in stress reduction, and being in nature is a well-documented way to promote relaxation. Try going for outdoor walks, visit your local parks (such as forest bathing), garden at home and try to stay away from technology for parts of the day … or even an entire weekend.
Getting enough sleep helps promote healthy, normal cortisol production, but having those temporary high cortisol levels can make it hard to rest. In people with normal circadian rhythms, cortisol levels rise during the early morning hours and then drop very low at night prior to sleep and during sleep.
Ideally, you should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night to reset your circadian rhythms and bring the body back in balance.
Acupuncture has increasingly been used to help with managing stress, including stress’s impact on cortisol levels. Researchers have found that acupuncture can result in promoting healthy cardiovascular and immune systems.