Lifestyle Change vs Drugs to Balance Cortisol
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Image by L. Whittaker.

I love it when doctors take the time to discuss lifestyle factors as the first line of treatment. In our world of instant gratification and primetime drug commercials, it’s not an easy conversation to have with a patient who is asking for a pill by name.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons I love Dr. Sara Gottfried’s book, The Hormone Cure, so much. Her treatment recommendations, called the Gottfried Protocol, always start with lifestyle changes.

My own struggles with autoimmune disease and hormones have made me take a step back and examine some of my lifestyle habits. Based on the questionnaire in Dr. Gottfried’s book, my cortisol levels may be off.  I also feel that my life is bit out of balance. I think my “go go” style may finally be catching up with me. Here are a few of the items I answered yes to from Dr. Gottfried’s questionnaire (in Chapter 1) for high cortisol:

  • A feeling you’re constantly racing from one task to the next?
  • A struggle calming down before bedtime, or a second wind that keeps you up late?
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep?
  • A feeling of anxiety or nervousness – can’t stop worrying about things beyond your control?

I had never had problems sleeping until I started having thyroid issues. Even when I started the business and was working two jobs, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and woke up ready to go the next day.  But recently this hasn’t been the case. My brain would be racing. I couldn’t calm down and then I would wake up several times during the night, usually between 2-4 am (another symptom of irregular cortisol levels).

If my cortisol levels are off, this can also impact the ability of my thyroid hormones to function optimally. Please keep in mind I have not yet had my cortisol levels tested. Thus my methods are extremely unscientific. I have asked my primary doctor as well as my endocrinologist about it getting them tested. My primary doesn’t test cortisol and my endo hasn’t been entirely receptive to the idea. He also doesn’t do the test that Dr. Gottfried recommends.

A good scientist would wait to check levels before making changes. However, because my need to sleep was so urgent, I decided to start working on lifestyle changes. With no negative side effects, what harm could there be in practicing more self care? From Dr. Gottfried’s recommendations I chose these three to start with:

  1. Wean from Caffeine

    “Wean” is her word not mine. I say reduce. My love of tea is well known. Perhaps as a crutch (and to stay warm in this abnormally cold winter) I’ve been drinking too much and too late in the day. I’ve cut back and tried to keep my caffeine consumption before noon.

  2. Yoga

    I’ve done yoga in the past but not with any regularity. It is harder for me but this requires me to be more present. I have to focus on my breathing and what my body is doing. This requires me to let go of other thoughts and stay in the moment. This is a very good thing for someone with constant “monkey mind” chatter. I’ve also started practicing a yoga pose known as Legs Up the Wall before bedtime.

  3. Practice Forgiveness and Gratitude

    I’ve been known to hold a grudge. During meditation time I am working on letting go.  Also each night before bed, my husband and I name two things we are grateful for. Instead of waiting till the last minute to figure out what I am grateful for, I am trying to collect grateful moments through out the day.

This treatment plan seems to be helping. I am still a bit tired to start the day and forgiveness isn’t always easy, but I am falling asleep much more easily and not waking up as much.  It’s a slow process but that’s how lifestyle change works. We all want change now but I’ve learned quick fixes rarely fix anything. Lasting change comes gradually with mindfulness and commitment.

Have you ever had your cortisol levels tested or have you been treated for high cortisol? I would love to hear your experiences.

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