We often talk about the importance of regulating cortisol production to optimise your health and hormones during your reproductive years. Yet it’s potentially even more important during perimenopause, when women enter a period of increased adrenal demand. Cortisol is your stress hormone, produced in response to stressors – either real or perceived – to help your body respond appropriately in the moment. In times of stress, your body produces more cortisol to provide you with more energy and adrenaline, in preparation to fight against the stressor however required. Essentially, whenever you’re in “fight or flight” mode, you’re producing greater amounts of cortisol. While short-term increases in cortisol production are normal and essential in supporting a healthy stress response, you don’t want this increased production to continue long-term. Excessive cortisol levels over time can cause a number of health complications, taking energy away from other important bodily processes and interfering with your digestion, metabolism, weight management, immune system function, hormonal balance, and more. In perimenopause, your hormones are already in a state of flux, meaning many women experience hormone imbalances among other menopause symptoms. If your cortisol levels are elevated, this can exacerbate perimenopause (peri) symptoms and hormone imbalances.
While we tend to focus on the nutrition changes required to support your health during perimenopause, there are also various strategies you should implement in order to reduce your cortisol levels, thereby relieving symptoms and imbalances of peri. Let’s get into some of the most effective ways to reduce your cortisol levels, to prevent unwanted perimenopause symptoms.
Why is cortisol a concern in perimenopause?
While we tend to focus on the decline in the production of oestrogen and progesterone as women enter perimenopause, the changes to your cortisol levels play an equally significant role in many symptoms of menopause. Your production of cortisol gradually increases as you age, particularly as you progress into the later stages of menopause. Add to this the fact that oestrogen can impact your production of cortisol, and you have a two-pronged pathway to elevated cortisol production happening during perimenopause. Plus, you’re dealing with the fact that perimenopause symptoms can be a stressor for many women, increasing stress levels and cortisol production even further – the cherry on top! This can lead to symptoms including low mood, poor health, difficulty managing weight, cravings, insomnia or trouble sleeping, low libido, skin and hair changes, low energy levels, decreases in bone density, changes to brain function, and other unwanted side effects.
Cortisol isn’t just your stress hormone. It also regulates your sleep cycle, blood sugar levels, metabolism, blood pressure and more. When you’re producing healthy levels of cortisol, this contributes to optimal health, however if your cortisol levels increase significantly during perimenopause, this naturally has the opposite effect. But the good news is, you can implement effective strategies to regulate your production of this hormone. Here’s how.
1. Eat a balanced diet
Your diet plays a significant role in regulating cortisol production. While some foods have an inflammatory effect on your body, contributing to higher levels of cortisol, other foods and food groups have the opposite impact, helping to support hormonal balance and regulate your cortisol production.
During perimenopause, it’s essential to include a wide variety of wholefoods, prioritising plenty of protein, fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and fibre. Things you want to eat in abundance include:
- Protein. During perimenopause, your muscles are no longer as efficient at using the protein you consume, meaning you often require greater amounts of protein. Aim for 25-30 grams of lean protein, from high-quality sources such fish, chicken, tofu or tempeh, at each main meal.
- Healthy fats. Cortisol plays a critical role in regulating your blood sugar levels, and it’s important to support this with the foods you eat. Healthy fats help to stabilise your blood sugar, and also support hormonal balance – which is of particular importance during perimenopause. Consider including foods like avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds, and extra virgin olive oil in your meals.
- Fruits and vegetables. Fruit and veg contain an abundance of fibre and antioxidants, both of which support general health and hormonal balance. Antioxidants also help to reduce oxidative stress in your body, which is essential when looking to reduce your cortisol levels. Aim to include a variety of different fruits and veggies each day – remember, each different colour represents a different micronutrient content, so the more variety you’re eating, the more different nutrients you’re nourishing your body with.
- Wholegrains. Wholegrains are essential for hormone health and balance. Aim to include foods like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and whole grain bread/pasta, and reduce your intake of refined grains and carbohydrates.
On the other hand, consider reducing your intake of the following:
- Caffeine. Excessive caffeine intake can contribute to higher cortisol levels – particularly when you’re drinking coffee on an empty stomach. Similarly, caffeine can interfere with sleep quality when you’re drinking it later in the day, which can again worsen cortisol production (more on this to come!)
- Foods high in refined sugars. Sugary foods can contribute to inflammation in your body and can spike your blood sugar levels, both of which act as a stress on your body and enhance cortisol production.
- Fried or processed foods. Again, these have an inflammatory effect on your body, interfering with hormone balance and increasing cortisol levels if eaten in excess.
- Alcohol. Research has found alcohol consumption increases cortisol levels, with each additional drink you consume having more and more of an effect on your production of the stress hormone. Try limiting your alcohol intake to 1-2 drinks maximum per day, making sure to incorporate several alcohol-free days each week too.
Ensure you’re drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration too. This also supports healthy cortisol levels.
2. Prioritise sleep
Quality and quantity of sleep is crucial for reducing your cortisol levels during perimenopause. If you’re not getting enough sleep each night, or you’re waking regularly during the night, you’re unlikely to be meeting the quality your body requires. This can become more difficult during perimenopause, as many women experience insomnia or sleeping difficulties. To help support high-quality sleep each night, try the following:
- Go to bed at the same time each night, and set your alarm for the same time the following morning. This will help to regulate your sleep-wake cycles.
- Implement a nighttime routine. Whether it involves taking a warm bath, reading a few pages of your book, or listening to a bedtime meditation, following the same steps before sleep each night will signal to your brain that it’s time to wind down.
- Switch off screens and devices an hour before sleep.
- Sleep in a cool, very dark room.
- Consider a magnesium supplement, under the guidance of a dietitian or health professional.
- Avoid caffeine after 1pm, and reduce your alcohol intake.
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every single night. This will help support healthy cortisol levels. Not only does inadequate sleep act as a stress to your body, therefore increasing cortisol, but it also interferes with your natural cortisol production, meaning you’ll be less likely to experience cortisol spikes during times of the day where you do want them to occur (such as when you first wake up), and more likely to experience them at unwanted times (such as when you’re trying to go to sleep – worsening the cycle of poor sleep and the consequences it causes!). Make sleep a non-negotiable and a priority, and your cortisol levels will benefit immensely.
3. Practise mindfulness and reduce stress
Perimenopause can be a stressful time for many women. The natural changes happening in your body can be uncomfortable and distressing, which naturally contributes to rising cortisol production. This makes it extra important to manage your stress, and reduce any stressors in your life where possible. After all, stress triggers cortisol production, so reducing stress can also lower cortisol levels.
Take the time to identify areas of your life that are causing you significant stress, and take action to reduce or eliminate these stressors where possible. For example, if your job is a high-pressure, hostile environment, can you request to change teams, pull back on your workload, or ask for extensions on tight deadlines? If you’re in a toxic relationship dynamic – be it romantic or platonic – can you create some distance or set some boundaries with the other party? If you’re constantly in a state of general overwhelm, can you implement some practices to help you better manage feelings of stress? If you feel obliged to say “yes” to everything that comes your way, can you block out a few hours each week for “you time”, to spend doing something purely for your own pleasure and joy?
Whatever works for you, identifying and either eliminating or managing sources of stress in your life is essential in helping to regulate your cortisol levels. Remember, your body perceives all types of stress in the same way – whether you’re running away from a lion, or dealing with work stress, your body’s response and cortisol production will be the same.
Mindfulness is an excellent way to help build resilience to stressors, allowing you to develop tools to manage your feelings and experiences of stress. These practices help you build stress tolerance, and have been shown to actively reduce the stress response in your brain, therefore normalising your body’s reaction to stress. Mindfulness makes you less reactive and more self-aware, meaning you’re better able to distance yourself from feelings of stress, and have greater control over how you respond, including whether you let stress affect you deeply or not. Things like yin yoga, breathwork, meditation, journaling, even walking in nature in silence can have a profound impact in helping to reduce your stress levels, and return your cortisol levels to baseline. Try to implement one (or more) of these practices into your daily routine, and over time you’ll notice your resilience to stress and your responses during stressful times become healthier and more controlled, greatly benefiting your cortisol levels in the process.
4. Reevaluate your exercise patterns
Exercise is important for general health, hormone balance and weight management, all of which help regulate cortisol. And while there’s no doubt that exercise is important for good health, it might be time to reevaluate how you exercise during perimenopause.
Too much exercise – whether that means excessive intensity, duration or volume of sessions – is actually a key contributor to high cortisol levels. Exercise is a stress for your body – and while it’s a healthy stress when used as a tool for improved energy, stress-relief, strength gains or enjoyment, if you’re overdoing it then your body will produce more cortisol than you want.
Strength or resistance training is imperative during perimenopause as your declining production of oestrogen means it’s more important than ever to prevent bone and muscle loss – and strength training is a great way to achieve this. Aiming for 3-4 sessions per week, to help improve muscle mass, bone strength and of course help sustain healthy weight.
In addition to resistance trining, opting for yoga, Pilates, barre or other low-impact movement styles. While you can still get your blood pumping and your heart rate up, these styles of movement have less of a cortisol-spiking effect on your body. In fact, studies have found yoga actively lowers cortisol levels – which likely has something to do with its mindfulness focus, helping you harness the mind-body connection.
Ensure you’re also incorporating rest days each week, during which you can enjoy some gentle stretching or a walk in nature – both of which further support lower cortisol levels.
While many women struggle with perimenopause symptoms, the solution to many of these unwanted side effects can often be lowering your cortisol levels. Considering your nutrition choices during this time is important, but so are the other lifestyle changes mentioned, including prioritising high-quality sleep, practising mindfulness, reducing stress levels and reevaluating how you exercise. Supporting a healthy cortisol response can help alleviate perimenopause symptoms, and improve your general health and wellbeing – so it’s definitely worth taking action!