Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal cortex. It is produced when the pituitary gland releases the hormone ACTH. Cortisol levels are lowest at around midnight, and highest between 6 and 8 in the morning, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Higher than normal cortisol levels occur in women taking oestrogen or birth control pills, according to the NIH. Certain herbs and foods may help to lower cortisol levels.
Cortisol affects your body's ability to get a good night's sleep, regulate energy production, thyroid, muscle strength, resistance to autoimmune diseases, resistance to infection, and even how strong an allergic reaction is going to be. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to Type 2 diabetes, weight gain around the abdomen, fatigue, brain fog and sugar cravings.
Eating foods with a high glycemic index can raise cortisol levels. If, for example, you eat a very starchy or sugary breakfast, you could raise your cortisol levels out of normal range. The cortisol levels could then stay elevated all day. If you eat immediately before bed, or have a late-night snack, this too could send cortisol levels up during the night. Skipping meals can also raise cortisol levels.
Raised cortisol levels at night will disrupt rapid eye movement (REM) sleep causing more health problems. Not getting enough REM sleep can make a person wake up unrefreshed even if he had eight or more hours of sleep. During REM sleep we dream and our muscles are deeply relaxed.
Foods that lower cortisol level have a low glycemic index. Eggs, meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables lower the cortisol levels. When you eat grains or sugars, eat them with animal protein to help balance out the glycemic level of the meal. Eating a low glycemic food every five hours helps to keep the cortisol level low, according to Dr. Pauline Harding of Nutrition4health.org.
Herbs that may help lower cortisol include holy basil, an Indian herb that is not related to Mediterranean basil. It is a revered herb in ayurvedic medicine and is also known as tulsi. Tulsi is known to also regulate blood sugar levels. Other herbs to lower cortisol levels are dong quai and astralgus.