Cortisol: The Stress Response Hormone that Can Cause Havoc in the Body

Cortisol: The Stress Response Hormone that Can Cause Havoc in the Body

Mental Health Gut Article

Believe it or not, we all need some stress in our lives. Stress is healthy and necessary. It’s when stress becomes significant and chronic that it can wreak havoc on our health. Stress can manifest in many different ways whether it is oversleeping or under sleeping, loss of appetite or overeating – everyone’s stress response can be different.

What happens to our body when we are stressed?

When we are stressed, our adrenal glands produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help launch our “flight-fight response”, which increases our blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugars so we are physiologically ready to deal with an imminent threat and can fight or flee. Adrenaline tends to be short lived in the body, but cortisol can stay around for a while. If a person has constant high stress levels then it can lead too excess cortisol, which can contribute to a whole host of health issues.

What is cortisol?

We need cortisol. Cortisol helps your body respond to stress. It has many health benefits when we have appropriate levels in the body. Cortisol helps regulate your blood pressure, reduces inflammation, and keeps your heart and blood vessels functioning normally. It also regulates the way your body converts proteins, carbohydrates and fats in your diet into useable energy.

What happens in the body if we have too much cortisol?

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing – and cortisol is no exception. Cortisol in large amounts can cause the following problems:

  • Excess belly fat
  • Weight gain around the face and upper back
  • Acne/thinning skin
  • Interfere with our ability to think clearly
  • Contribute to muscle breakdown
  • Contribute to blood sugar spikes
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Reduced libido
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Bruising easily
  • Poor wound healing

What causes us to have too much cortisol?

Excess cortisol can often be due to chronic high levels of stress but may also be caused by problems with their adrenal glands. High cortisol can be caused by certain medications such as corticosteroids which are frequently prescribed to treat arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or asthma. (1)

Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can cause cortisol levels to rise. Research of over 3,600 men and women found that alcohol consumption increased cortisol secretion in the body. The increased cortisol levels occur due to the impact alcohol has on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. (2)

Caffeine also increases cortisol secretion in people at rest or people undergoing mental stress. (3)

Poor sleep can also increase cortisol secretion. Research found that individuals that had poor sleep had high evening cortisol levels and the levels decreased slower than the control subjects. These elevations in cortisol levels increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and obesity. (4)

Interestingly enough, poor blood sugar control can increase cortisol as well. When our blood sugars drop, which can be caused by missing meals or eating foods high in sugar and refined grains, our body naturally produces the stress hormone cortisol to help raise our blood sugars back up. So, if you struggle with hypoglycemia or diabetes, balancing blood sugars can really help to reduce your cortisol levels.

What is Cushing’s syndrome?

Cushing’s syndrome occurs when you have too much cortisol in the body over a long period of time. Signs of Cushing’s syndrome include a fatty hump between your shoulders, a rounded face, and pink or purple stretch marks on the skin. Cushing syndrome can also result in high blood pressure, bone loss and, on occasion, type 2 diabetes.

Cushing’s syndrome can be treatable, and affected individual’s can return the body’s cortisol levels to normal and improve symptoms. The earlier treatment begins, the better the chances for recovery.

7 Ways To Reduce Cortisol Levels

  1. Balancing blood sugars – Eat 3 meals a day following the “My Plate” method of ½ a plate of vegetables, ¼ plate of protein and a ¼ plate of starchy carbohydrates such as a baked sweet potato, brown rice, or whole grain pasta. Not only will this help lower cortisol levels but help to support better sleep, mood and energy levels
  2. Avoid caffeine and alcohol – these both stimulate the increase in cortisol. Alcohol is inflammatory to the body and inflammation can fuel many of those stress-like symptoms.
  1. Phosphotidyl Serine has been suggested in some studies to support healthy levels of cortisol, with subjects taking 400 milligrams daily (5). Phosphatidlyl serine can be found in organ meats, soy beans, eggs and white beans.
  2. Modify your exercise routine – Intense exercise places stress on the body and raises cortisol. You may find switching to less stressful exercises such as walking and yoga can lower cortisol levels and lead to weight loss that wasn’t happening when engaged in intense workouts. Also, working out in the morning will raise cortisol levels much higher than evening workouts. That’s because our cortisol is also naturally higher in the morning to help get us going for the day.
  3. Get good sleep – Sleep is when your body goes into repair and recovery mode, balancing hormones and supporting healthy weight management and lean muscle mass. If you experience poor sleep then cortisol will naturally go up and your ability to deal with stress during the day becomes even more difficult.
  4. Laugh – Laughter can have a positive impact on elevated cortisol levels. Research found that laughing more could help reduce stress and keep cortisol levels down. (6)
  5. Stay well hydrated – One study found that levels of hydration can affect cortisol. When the body is dehydrated, cortisol levels increase. (7)


  5. Kingsley M. Effects of phosphatidylserine supplementation on exercising humans. Sports Med. 2006;36(8):657-669. doi:10.2165/00007256-200636080-00003
The Impact of Psychological Stress on Cancer Growth

The Impact of Psychological Stress on Cancer Growth

Detoxifying vegetables and fruits

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada and is responsible for 28.2% of all deaths in Canada. The statistics show that more than 2 in 5 Canadians (44% of men and 43% of women) are expected to develop cancer during their lifetime with lung, prostate, breast and colorectal cancer making up of 40% of all new cancers.

There are many contributing factors to cancer development – including genetics, environmental exposure, dietary choices, and lifestyle – but one factor that often gets overlooked is psychological stress, also known as emotional stress.

It has been well-documented that psychological stress can be a major contributing factor for many major illnesses and diseases, and unfortunately this can include the “big C” – cancer.

Stress & Cancer

When you look at the relationship between stress and cancer, the research is somewhat varied. Some experts suggest that stress can cause cancer, while others believe it may only contribute to the condition.

Stress is inevitable, and we actually need some stress in our lives. In short doses, stress can actually be healthy for us! However, research has shown that chronic, long-term stress (which in the last couple years has been something that many of us have experienced) has been found to promote and facilitate the development of cancer. This is because stress can weaken the body’s necessary functioning including immune response, and our immune system is largely responsible for keeping cancer at bay (2).

Research has also found that stress may have a greater impact on people who have already been successfully treated for cancer. In one study, researchers found that stress may reactivate dormant tumor cells, causing cancer to return in those in remission (3).

Therefore, managing stress by reducing exposure to stressors and having healthy coping mechanisms might not only help prevent cancer development but also help to reduce the risk of coming out of remission!

Coping with Stress

If you do have a lot of stress, it is important to consider one’s reaction to stress, as this may also make a difference in the susceptibility to disease. When individuals have better stress management strategies and healthy coping mechanisms in place, then their susceptibility to disease is lessened. In short, in most instances it is our reaction to a stressor that is more meaningful to our health outcomes than the details of the stressor itself.

If we find ourselves in stressful situations or environments, and feel that we have little or no control over them, this can result in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, and depression. These are the types of negative feelings can impact our bodies and predispose us to illness.

So, let’s take a deeper dive into how stress manifests into cancer…

How Stress Contributes To Cancer Growth

When we are under stress, we illicit the “fight or flight” reaction. When this occurs our limbic system (the part of our brain above our brainstem, and the area of the brain responsible for emotions) records stress, depression, and despair; and its effects on the body experienced by an individual. This leads to a response with the hypothalamus (a small region of the brain that acts as our endocrine system’s switchboard).

The messages the hypothalamus receives from the limbic system are translated to two areas of the body – the immune system and the endocrine system. The area that is most responsive to emotional stress is the immune system and regulating the pituitary gland that in turn regulates the remainder of the endocrine system (hormonal system). This is significant because an imbalance of the adrenal hormones will create a greater susceptibility to carcinogenic substances.

The result of such a hormonal imbalance can be an increased production of abnormal cells in the body and a weakened ability of the immune system to combat these cells. Our immune system is the body’s natural defense system, and it is designed to contain or destroy cancerous cells – which are normally present in the body on occasion. If the immune system is suppressed and can no longer perform the duties of containing or destroying cancer cells, it can result in the growth and proliferation of cancer cells. With this sequence of events related to stress and psychological changes, an optimal environment is now created for cancer growth.

It’s clear, emotional stress plays a huge role in suppression of the immune response, leaving the body susceptible to the development of cancer.

So, what do we do about it?

How To Better Manage Our Stress and Emotions To Help Prevent Cancer Growth

There are many strategies you can implement to support the reduction of your stress responses:

Additional Resources

Stress management and cancer prevention are topics that are relevant to nearly all of us. As a result, we’ve written many more resources to help you navigate and apply diet and lifestyle choices that support your health.

  • As identified in this article negative thought patterns and emotions impact our hormones and immune system, so developing positive mindset can be helpful. You, too, can learn how to develop some health positive mindset strategies.
  • Managing stress is key to health, so we’ve outlined some more stress management strategies.
  • Dietary changes that better manage stress hormones is also of vital importance to health. When blood sugars fluctuate too widely our bodies naturally produce the stress hormone cortisol. You can read more about the best foods to manage stress.
  • Maintaining a diet that supports blood sugar balance is another factor in preventing disease. We’ve shared the 4 easy steps to achieving a balanced diet.
  • For more on dietary strategies research shows are cancer preventative, check out 5 Nutrition Strategies for Cancer Prevention.
  • We’ve also listed our favourite foods to help prevent cancer in our article Top 6 Cancer-Preventative Foods.

We hope some of this information encourages you to do what you can to manage stress, prevent cancer, and live as many health-filled years as possible!






Top 5 Strategies To Help Manage Stress

Top 5 Strategies To Help Manage Stress

Detoxifying vegetables and fruits

Stress is an all too common problem in the 21st century. Throw a pandemic with lockdowns and online schooling in the mix and it is no wonder our stress levels are through the roof! It is hard to remain optimistic when the future is so unknown. There’s potential new variants lurking around the next corner, and the ability to plan vacations or just to “get away” might feel like an impossible dream. 

Work-life balance can be a struggle as well and finding time to manage the workload and stress load can be tough. We know how you feel. We’re all in this craziness together!

That’s why we are providing you with some strategies to help you manage your stress and regain some balance.

#1 Brain Dumping

Are you someone that struggles to get to sleep at night? Do you find your brain cannot shut off? Is your mind endlessly going over all the things that you need to do tomorrow, this week, and this month?

To help take that burden off we suggest brain dumping!

Have a pen and paper beside your bed. Before going to sleep at night, write all those thoughts or tasks that you have on to the paper. Basically, you are transferring the storage of important information from your brain to the paper – giving your mind permission to shut off and go to sleep.

#2. Find Your “Energy Robbers” And “Energy Givers”

This is an important step in helping to get back your energy and happiness.

Write a list of all the things and people that give you energy, happiness or pleasure – even if you haven’t done or seen them for a while. Then, in another column write down all the activities and people that take your energy or are detrimental to your health (whether it be physically, emotionally etc.)

Once you have completed the list make steps to engage in those positive activities and people more often during the week!

For the “energy robbers” there are a few ways to reduce their load. First, you may want to look at changing the situation. For example, can you trade childcare with a friend so you both can have some time for self-care? Another option is to look at how can you change yourself to adapt to the situation. For example, if you were getting more sleep would you be able to better perform and manage your work during the day? Lastly, you can look at leaving or avoiding the situation altogether. For example, maybe your book club is no longer bringing you joy and it is time to search for a new hobby.

#3. Switch Out Your Coffee

You might be shuddering at the fact that you have to give up your morning cuppa. If stress and fatigue is an issue, you may be desperately relying on more than a few cups of coffee to get you through the day. But excess caffeine consumption can actually contribute to stress and fatigue – and even adrenal exhaustion.

Excess caffeine intake can contribute nervousness, irritability, insomnia, “restless legs,” dizziness and subsequent fatigue (Haas, 762). A study published in the American Journal of Psychology looked at 1,500 psychology students and divided them into four categories depending on their coffee intake: abstainers, low consumers (one cup or equivalent a day), moderate (one to five cups a day), and high (five or more cups a day). The moderate and high consumers were found to have higher levels of anxiety and depression than the abstainers, and the high consumers had the greatest incidence of stress-related medical problems, as well as lower academic performance (Holford, 2013)

Instead, you can swap your coffee for green tea, which might be a better option. Firstly, it does have a bit of caffeine (just not as much as coffee) to help give you a “pick me up”. But it also has the amino acid L-theanine which has a calming effect on the mind. The compounds within green tea can also help facilitate weight loss which often can be an issue for people that are stressed as the stress hormone cortisol can contribute to weight gain, especially around the belly. 

#4 Start Your Day With A Balanced Breakfast

We get it, this seems like a basic thing to do. But, you will be surprised at how many people struggle to eat breakfast – especially a balanced one!

Balancing blood sugars is so important for managing stress and energy levels. If you are able to consume balanced meals throughout the day this will go a long way to provide a steady flow of energy and promote a calm and balanced mood.

If you skip breakfast or rely on a bagel or doughnut from a drive-through, or consume toast with jam or sugary cereals; then you create a blood sugar spike. And what goes up (our blood sugar, in this case) quickly comes crashing down. When blood sugar crashes your body naturally produces cortisol to help raise blood sugar back up. The problem is if we are stressed, we usually have too much cortisol running through us so the last thing we need is more.

Try incorporating the following breakfasts:

These are all much better options to help keep your blood sugars balanced. 

#5 Explore Herbal Supplements

There are many herbs that have been shown to help us manage our stress. One such herb is Ashwagandha. This herb helps support cognitive functioning, critical reasoning skills and thinking; which all become negatively affected when we are under stress and trying to function with our foggy and overwhelmed brain. This herb has a calming effect on the body and helps to modulate cortisol levels; meaning it’s beneficial whether your levels are too high or too low.

Siberian Ginseng is another herb that helps support and rejuvenate adrenal function, increase resistance to stress, normalize metabolism and regulate neurotransmitters; which all help to modify the stress response. Studies showed it improved absorption of B-vitamins and helps reduce vitamin C loss – these key vitamins are crucial in supporting the adrenal glands and are used up quickly in the body when we are under stress.

Licorice root helps to restore cortisol balance. It also provides antioxidant support, stimulates blood circulation and boosts the immune system – which often becomes depressed or compromised when we are stressed. This is why we often get run down and sick when we are stressed out.

If you are going to explore herbs as part of managing stress, please speak to your health practitioner first. Herbs can be contraindicated with certain medications or health conditions, so it’s best to seek qualified advice before starting new supplementation.


Stress is an exceedingly common problem in our society and achieving a balance can sometimes seem impossible. That said, if not dealt with it, stress can lead to a variety of secondary health issues.

But by incorporating some simple strategies such as having a balancing breakfast every morning, switching out your coffee for green tea, drinking more water, supplementing with herbal support, brain dumping at night to stop ruminating thoughts, and engaging in activities that give you energy and pleasure – then you are off to a good start!

If you would like more support in this area to help manage high stress levels, rebalance your diet, or begin a supplementation protocol, then please reach out to us. We would love to help. 


Calming Tea

Calming Tea

Two Glasses with Detox Green Smoothie

Sipping a warm cup of herbal tea can help tame stress or lull you into a restful sleep.

Having a bedtime routine that nourishes you mind, body, and spirit is essential to managing stress, reducing anxiety, and promoting good quality sleep

This Calming Tea is not just beneficial in the evenings, though. Try the Calming Tea recipe below the next time your mind and body need a break.

There are 5 herbs included in our Calming Tea recipe:

Passion flower has traditionally been used to reduce anxiety and insomnia. Some studies indicate that passionflower increases GABA production in the brain, leading to a relaxed feeling (1). GABA is a calming neurotransmitter that is also increased by mindfulness practices like yoga or meditation.

Lemon balm has traditionally been used to boost mood, reduce stress, and even to improve cognitive function (2). Studies have shown that lemon balm is not only effective for managing stress, but also for reducing restlessness and improving sleep quality (3). Outside of the therapeutic benefits, lemon balm’s light and citrusy scent adds such a pleasant flavour to this tea blend as well!

Lavender is one of the most well-known herbs world-wide. It is renown for its calming qualities! While lavender has dozens of traditional uses, most applicable to this Calming Tea is lavender’s affinity to reduce anxiety, improve mood, induce sleep, and improve stress tolerance (4). Plus, it smells amazing!

Chamomile is almost synonymous with Calming Tea! Many of our grandparents swore by the calming properties of chamomile. With a little scientific research, we now know that chamomile has some other exciting benefits including protection against certain cancers and improving heart health (5). Specific to this Calming Tea blend, however, we’ve included chamomile not only for the calming effects but for it’s ability to help balance blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels are imbalanced, this causes stress within the body and can make us feel off kilter. So, rebalancing blood sugar levels can help us feel centred again.

Because the plants are related, for those with ragweed allergies, it may be best to omit the chamomile from this recipe.

Hibiscus is a packed with antioxidants that give it a gorgeous deep pinky-red colour. Antioxidants can help reduce stress on a cellular level in the human body. Hibiscus is tart and floral and ties together the other flavours of this tea in a beautiful way. The addition of hibiscus makes this Calming Tea truly enjoyable to sip!

We hope you can make this Calming Tea a regular part of your self-care routine. Enjoy!


Calming Tea

A cup of this warm and soothing Calming Tea is an excellent way to begin a wind-down routine in the evening.
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes
Servings 1 serving


  • 2 parts Passion Flower
  • 2 parts Lemon Balm
  • 1 part Lavender Blossoms
  • 1 part Chamomile
  • 2 parts Hibiscus Flowers


  • In a glass container with an airtight lid, combine the herbs together. You can make the batch as small or as large as you would like.
  • Boil water and pour it into a mug. Place 1 teaspoon of your blend in a tea ball or bag and place it in the mug.
  • Allow to steep, covered, for 5-7 minutes for maximum benefits.
  • Take a few deep breaths, and enjoy!