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Finding Harmony: A Functional Dietitian's Insights to Balancing Cortisol

By Lesley Nickleson, RD, IFNCP

What does cortisol have to do with finding harmony in your life?


Cortisol has gained much popularity recently in the health and wellness circles. As someone who has personally experienced the devastating effects of burnout, I want to help you understand the relationship between cortisol and stress and share my top tips for restoring balance and harmony.


Around the age of 40, I was a single Mom raising three kids on my own. The day to day ‘tasks’ were constant from waking up, morning drop offs at school, working in a clinical role, rushing home for dinner and then off again to hockey barns and horse arenas. Yes, that is exactly how it felt, hockey arenas blended with horse barns. I still remember sitting on the hockey bench one Sunday afternoon and this feeling of pure exhaustion just washed over me. I acknowledged that this was the first moment I had stopped all week. I was so busy that I hadn’t even noticed how completely exhausted I was. My doctor around this time diagnosed me with chronic fatigue syndrome, to which I laughed to myself and said it is more like ‘single parent-itis’. But now I get it. Let’s explore.


 Understanding The Path: Cortisol and The Stress Response


Cortisol is one of the few hormones involved in stress response and is commonly termed “the stress hormone”. The stress response is governed by the Hypothalamic- Pituitary- Adrenal axis (HPA) where cortisol is produced and released by the adrenal gland.


  We have around 300 hormones that work in synchrony with each other. Each master organ of the body has its own set and subsets of hormones that operate in a very intricate matrix. Hormones are how the systems of the body communicate with each other as chemical messengers. The matrix is often described as a symphony such that if one is out of tune then the whole harmony can be off. In this hormone symphony, cortisol functions to regulate our metabolism, immune system, inflammation, and the body’s stress response.


Like all hormones, it is maintained in a tightly controlled or healthy range, its levels naturally vary throughout the day. Cortisol peaks in the morning, helping us wake up alert for the day, rises and falls throughout the day and begins to lower as we begin to relax and settle for a good night’s sleep.


When cortisol is out of balance, the harmony goes off balance.


Let’s look at what happens when the stress state is activated. The stress state, or sympathetic drive, changes the body physiology where everything is aimed at preparing the body to ‘fight or flight.’


1. Blood sugars increase: to provide a quick supply of fuel

2. Heart Rate & Blood pressure increases

3. Muscle protein breaks down: to meet the demand for glucose

4. Intense cravings for sugar: kick in, that no amount of willpower can override.

5. Fat is stored for fuel: not your typical fat but visceral adipose tissue (VAT) stored in the abdomen & around our organs (fatty liver)

6. Blood flows to our muscles: and away from our vital organs, to prepare for fight or flight

7. Organ function gets less attention: functions like digestion and detoxification are sub-optimal

8. All Hormones Shift: to support the ability cope with stress

9. Insulin resistance develops: our cells become less resistant to insulin and the ability to use glucose as fuel

10. Unexplained Weight changes: with increased fat storage and insulin resistance

11. Fatigue and exhaustion; occurs on a deep cellular level

Unveiling the Stages of Stress: Arousal, Adaptation & Burnout

These changes do not happen overnight! The progress over time as cortisol remains elevated in response to stress.  Stress builds up over time and can be very subtle. It happens in stages as identified by Dr. Hans Seyle, as the General Adaptation Syndrome, (1950).

Stage One: The Arousal stage: Tired & Wired

● The initial reaction to stress

● The body shifts into the sympathetic state of fight or flight

● Characterized by feelings of stress (wired) & occasional sleeplessness

 ● The physiology returns to normal when the stress is no longer present

 Stage Two: Adaptive Stage: Resistance Stage

● If stress is prolonged, the body to tries adapting to ongoing stress

● Cortisol levels remain elevated and become increasingly out of balance

 ● Characterized by feelings of persistent fatigue, difficulty concentrating, brain fog, poor sleep, joint and muscle tension, worsening digestive issues, more frequent colds, and infections

 Stage Three: Exhaustion Stage: Burn-Out

 ● The body weakens the ability to cope with stress

 ● Characterized by burnout, chronic fatigue, exhaustion and impaired organ functioning, depression and hopelessness, impaired decision making, hormone disruption, weight fluctuations, chronic inflammation “itis” conditions

So imagine over how stress, as a common root cause, can progress to many conditions including arthritis, irritable bowel, fatty liver and diseases like pre-diabetes, heart disease and even hormonal cancers.

 Identifying the Triggers: What Leads to Cortisol Imbalance

Anything that keeps the body in a state of stress or a sympathetic nervous system state. It is a compound effect, where nutrition, sleep, stress & lifestyle all interplay.

Chronic stress from work, personal relationships or social pressures can build up over time. Lack of quality sleep significantly impacts our cortisol rhythm. Diets high in sugar, excessive caffeine intake and high alcohol consumption fuel a state of stress in the body. Calorie restricted or restrictive diets create heightened stress in the body. Lifestyle factors such as being sedentary, exposures to toxins, noise, pollution or fear-based media all can be lead to stress over time. Medications like long-term steroid use can affect optimal cortisol production. Even over exercising and over training in burnout explains why some people experience weight gain on crazy diet and exercise plans.

Reclaiming Equilibrium: The Key to Cortisol Balance

Good news! There is a lot that you can do in your day-to-day life to help balance and restore optimal cortisol levels.  First, recognize the stage of stress you may be experiencing. If you are in a stage of burnout then it is critical that you prioritize mega doses of self care and stress management. It can take a long time to come back from adrenal burnout.

The key: shift the state of the nervous system to activate a parasympathetic, rest and digest or healing and repair state more often in your daily life.

Finding Harmony: My Top Restoration Tips

These are some of the practices that I brought into my life and how I overcame exhaustion and burnout to live with more health and vitality:

No. 1. Begin & Deepen a Meditation Practice

Meditation is defined as “techniques that calm or settle the nervous system”. As a Meditation teacher, It is the most powerful way I found to shift physiology from fight or flight (sympathetic) to rest & digest, tend & befriend, healing & repair- the parasympathetic nervous system state.


No. 2. Spend daily time in Nature.

Plants and trees in nature emit compounds called phytoncides which are healing to the nervous system. When you go walking in a forest, you never come out the same way you went in.


No. 3 Do Joyful Movement 20 minutes a Day

Joyful movement is doing movement that you love. Intense exercise & over training can add to stress and elevated cortisol. Movement helps to release stress and discharge energy. Experiment with forms of movement like Yoga flows, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, walking with wonder, biking, hiking, kayaking or even dancing.


No. 4. Vagal Toning

The vagus nerve is drives the parasympathetic nervous system and regulates important body functions like digestion and relaxation. To stimulate the vagus nerve try tongue scraping, gargling to activate a gag reflex, humming or chanting, massaging the mastoid bone behind the ear and taking long, slow deep breaths.


No. 5 Essential Oils: Vibrant Blue Oils: Parasympathetic Blend

Use the Parasympathetic Blend by Vibrant Blue oils daily. Massage just behind the ear.


No. 6 Start a Morning Routine

Incorporate a daily morning routine that integrates gratitude, affirmations, setting positive intentions and journaling. It is very hard to feel stress and gratitude at the same time. Bonus if you add morning meditation or deep breathing to strengthen a positive mindset.


No. 7 Include Adaptogens

Adaptogens are plant compounds that train our nervous system to ‘adapt’ to stress. My favorite adaptogens are mushrooms which train us to be resilient. I brought them into my daily life with an evening 5 Mushroom Blend hot chocolate (Harmonic Arts). Others include herbal teas or supplements such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Panax Ginseng, Holy Basil, DGL Licorice Root, Astragalus and Reishi mushroom. It is suggested to work with a trained practitioner to find the right type and dose for you.


No. 8 Boost Nervous System Nutrients: Magnesium- Omega 3’s- B Vitamins

Incorporate nutrients that support the parasympathetic nervous system such as magnesium rich foods (nuts, seeds, leafy greens and dark chocolate), omega-3 fatty acids (small fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts), B-vitamins from whole grains, like pyridoxine, folate, B12 that support neurotransmitters. Focus on anti-inflammatory, whole foods nutrition.


No. 9. Reduce Toxins in Your Life: Go Clean & Organic

Toxins, some known as neuroendocrine disruptors, can wreak havoc on our hormone balance. To reduce toxins, prioritize organic foods whenever possible. Check out the’s Clean 15 & Dirty 12 for fresh produce buying guide. Avoid sugary foods, processed foods with chemical additives. It is crucial to eliminate plastics such as plastic water bottles and food storage containers, especially ones that sit under heat lamps in the store. Minimize exposure to chemicals in personal care products and household cleaners, opting for all natural alternatives. Choose conscious cookware such as cast iron, stainless steel, or ceramic over non-stick coated.


No. 10 Create a positive social media environment

Surround yourself with positivity, uplifting social media content and messaging. Fill your social media feeds with inspiring quotes, beautiful imagery and what makes you feel good. Do a regular digital detox to reduce exposure to stress-inducing information. Set daily time to unplug from your devices, like 2 hours before bed to help balance cortisol.


As an Integrative Functional Dietitian, I navigated my own path from burnout to balance. It started with a Meditation practice, which was the most powerful transformation I have ever experienced in my personal journey. Now, both my personal and professional approach has evolved to embrace all holistic aspects of healing body, mind, heart & soul.


My hope is that these insights and tips will empower you to take control of your health, reduce stress, and cultivate a life of harmony and vitality. Because I believe that finding balance is not only possible but essential for our overall well-being. Here's to a journey of restoration, resilience, and lasting harmony.



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