How To Tame Your Cortisol (and Why You Should!)

Maybe we should call it the "ugly hormone."
Michelle Villett
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Maybe we should call it the "ugly hormone."
Missoni - Spring 2011 makeup

Is it okay if I get a bit profane and call cortisol a bitch? Because she really is. And not in the cute doggie mamma kind of way. Too much cortisol is bad for the pretty in so many ways—and this year my New Year's beauty resolution is to tame her into submission.

Okay, sure, we all need some cortisol—a.k.a. the stress hormone—for times when we're actually in danger. If you've ever had to take charge in a shitty situation, you know how it feels: your heartbeat races, you get a surge of energy, you think quickly and you do what needs to be done.

Unfortch, cortisol also gets released for dumb, non-emergency reasons like when you're a stress case over a work deadline or worrying about why what's-his-face didn't call. When low levels of the stuff surge through your bod day after day, it's like a chain reaction of badness: you feel burned out, have zero energy, can't sleep properly and crave unhealthy foods. So you don't work out as much as you should, you gain weight and you're more prone to getting sick.

Stressed is Desserts

But that's not even the beauty part.

You see, I think we all have enough common sense to know that staying on the computer until 2am while eating Cheetos isn't a great idea on a regular basis. I mean, duh. But somehow when you connect it directly to a beauty result, the message hits home and inspires you do actually DO something about it. At least for me, because I'm totally vain.

Here are a few things about cortisol that you may not have considered.

Your "hormonal" acne might just be high cortisol.

You know that Shit Girls Say series? "Hormonal acne" needs to be part of it. We chicks love to blame our breakouts on our menstrual cycles. I'm not saying that's 100 percent wrong, but there's a chance we might be blaming the wrong hormones.

I actually started this cortisol resolution thing back in December after re-reading my naturopath Natasha Turner's book, The Supercharged Hormone Diet. (Highly recommend!) I'll try and go into this in more detail in a future post, but basically her whole argument is that there's a hierarchy of hormones you have to balance for optimal health (and beauty). She has a chart in the book that looks like a pyramid, and guess what? Cortisol is near the bottom (insulin too), while female hormones like estrogen and progesterone are closer to the top. The key takeaway: it makes no sense to try and balance the higher-level hormones if the lower ones—the "foundation"—are all out of whack.

So that's what I want to throw out there for your consideration. If you get acne, maybe there's nothing "off" about your reproductive system. Maybe you're just not following the proper steps to reduce your cortisol levels—and that's what you should try tinkering with first.

Chronically high cortisol makes you look way older.

You know this intuitively. People that have undergone long-term high-stress experiences—like going through a divorce or caring for a sick family member—age like crazy. Or even fitness addicts who are super into triathlons and stuff like that (over-exercising surges cortisol too, BTW). You see them after months apart and it's like... whoa. You can SEE what this nasty little hormone is capable of doing to the skin. And so even if your sitch is relatively manageable, just think about what's going on behind the scenes when you've got, say, a late-night sleeping habit or something like that.

The reason cortisol ages you is because it suppresses both immunity and repair, so your skin cells (as well as all the other ones in your body) can't recover fast enough from whatever daily damage they've been put through. It also tears down muscle tissue and boosts fat storage... think saggy and flabby all over. Ick!

High cortisol puts you in a crummy mood...

Which is bad because happy girls are the prettiest.

Diane von Furstenberg - Fall 2011 beauty

Not to get into the whole Samantha Brick debate again, but there is really no point to all of this beauty stuff if your personality is that of a raging bitch. Sure, we all have moments that we're not proud of, but if a stressful lifestyle is making you experience low moods or high irritability, then it's time to take action. Taking care of yourself, getting your lifestyle under control and feeling positive should be priority numero uno—and a far better beauty tip than any BB cream or lipstick or whatever that I can recommend!

Here are a few things that I'm making an effort with now in order to kick cortisol's ass:

  • Going to bed at a ridiculously grandma-like hour of 10pm or latest 11pm. Because it's not just the quantity of sleep you get, but the quality: the more z's you clock before midnight, the better.
  • Winding down a few hours before bedtime. That means shutting off the laptop, the cell phone and the TV and doing stuff like painting my nails, taking a bath or reading a book. The electronics are way too stimulating—dimming the lights helps too.
  • Not eating within three hours of bedtime, and not drinking within two. Apparently the digestive process interferes with proper sleep, so ideally you should try to time your evening schedule so that you're finished with dinner by 7pm.
  • Taking calming supplements before bed. Check with your doctor or ND about this, since I can't give medical advice—but I take vitamin B6 and magnesium at night to help knock me out naturally. Relora and ashwaganda are also great for day-to-day stress management, and hydrolized milk protein for times of high stress.
  • Sleeping naked and in a cool, dark room. Oh yes! This one REALLY makes a difference. Also, if your room gets too bright, wear a sleep mask.
  • Eating every few hours (and including carbs!). Cortisol goes up during fasting, so don't go too long between meals, and choose healthy carbs to give you energy and keep you full for longer.
  • Not over-exercising.Trainer George has changed my life, but even he recognizes that there is such thing as training too hard. It's not always possible with my schedule but I'm trying to separate my cardio from my weights whenever I can so that my body can recover.
  • Realizing that we don't have to be superwomen! There is no such thing as having and doing it all. Let's all try and let go of the need to be "perfect" and prioritize the areas of our life that we do want to invest time in, being realistic—and KIND to ourselves—about what we can and can't accomplish.

Wowza, that was a pretty health-heavy post! Let's talk about this some more over the coming weeks, but in the meantime tell me:

What's YOUR 2013 beauty resolution?
Do you think your cortisol levels could use some help?
How do you manage stress?