Did you know that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older (18.1% of the population) every year? (1) If you have been following me for any amount of time you know I place a strong emphasis on gut health and mental health.

In addition to “Leaky-gut,” deficiencies in nutrients like magnesium and Vitamin D, and even a bacterial infection like Lyme disease (2) are now well-documented as causes of anxiety. And there are many more causes! But before we highlight what I believe to be an overlooked cause of anxiety, let’s make sure we’re on the same page in understanding what it means to have anxiety.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Occasional feelings of “worry” are normal given the demands of daily life. Finances, elderly parents, health, and even life events like relocating can leave you feeling anxious and rightfully so! But when do we define those “episodes” as becoming uncontrollable? Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a diagnosis given to a patient who, over a time period of six months, feels more nervous and worried than not, and finds it harder to focus on daily tasks as a result.

The difference between having GAD and another type of anxiety disorder is that someone with GAD pretty much can’t get through the day without profound, on-going worry, meaning, there is no identifiable “thing” that brings on the feelings of anxiousness, rather, the patient displays three or more symptoms listed below (3).

Typical Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Worry about everyday things
  • Have trouble controlling their worries or feelings of nervousness
  • Know that they worry much more than they should
  • Can’t relax, feeling restless
  • Have a hard time concentrating
  • Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feel easily tired or tired all the time
  • Be irritable or feel “on edge”

Are Your Adrenal Glands Causing Anxiety?

I vividly recall over a decade ago—an unshakable feeling of anxiousness. I was constantly tired and “on edge,” and I thought it was purely due to the fact that I couldn’t sleep straight through the night. I lived like this for over ten years. None of the medications doctors put me on worked for me.

I’m such a “Type A” personality that feeling “foggy” or “not present” makes me feel out of control so I don’t take medication well. I turned to aggressive forms of exercise in an effort to manage stress (see HERE what I mean by “aggressive”), but was getting nowhere – until – I had my adrenal glands tested.

It wasn’t until I discovered I had unstable levels of cortisol, that I began to supplement and eat accordingly to see the “pendulum swing” in the other direction of finally fewer days of anxiousness, irritability and poor sleep.

The Relationship Between Cortisol and Anxiety

You have two adrenal glands located on top of each of your kidneys. The liver makes cholesterol, which is sent to the adrenal glands to be synthesized into the steroid/hormone known as “cortisol.” The hypothalamus of your brain then signals the pituitary gland which signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol in response to physical, chemical or emotional stress by way of the H-P-A (Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrena) Axis. (4)

Releasing cortisol for short-term scenarios is needed (i.e. supporting the “fight-flight response” by raising your heart rate and rushing blood to your legs if you need to run for your life, etc.). But during times of prolonged stress, your adrenal glands can get caught in a negative feedback loop due to a damaged H-P-A-Axis. Chronically high levels of cortisol lead to a variety of high cortisol symptoms (5).

Symptoms of High Cortisol

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Low libido
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood swings
  • Eating disorders
  • Alcoholism
  • Disruptive sleep
  • Chronic pain
  • Fatigue

The great news is that if I can regulate my cortisol levels and virtually eliminate episodes of anxiety, so you can you. A doctor of functional medicine can appropriately analyze your H-P-A-Axis through functional lab testing, which goes way beyond the standard CBC to determine how much cortisol your body is producing. This is my specialty, so if you are reading this and are ready to banish anxiety for the long-term, let’s get to work.

5-steps To Regulating Cortisol And Lowering Anxiety

You may read these next steps and say to yourself “well that’s pretty self-explanatory,” but the truth of it is that when you commit to implementing this protocol daily for at least three weeks (giving the liver a full 21 days to regenerate), you will reap the benefits associated with adapting better eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. Here are six steps that will assist you in lowering your cortisol levels naturally.

1. Practice Conscious Eating

Forgo fast food, convenience, or processed foods and even dining out at restaurants. Instead, meal plan for a week’s worth of home cooked meals. Keeping meals simple by eating a diet rich in whole foods like green smoothies, grass-fed meat, fresh fruits and vegetables will not only provide you with anti-inflammatory benefits (6) to control your symptoms, but also support your adrenal glands in balancing your hormones which in turn will allow for regulation of cortisol and better quality sleep.

Meal planning for the week has been a god send for a busy mom like me, because it reduces my stress over meals, entirely, by eliminating “what do I make for breakfast/lunch/dinner.”

2. Exercise With Consistency

Consistency is everything. So whether you enjoy long walks, biking, swimming, yoga, or pilates—whatever low-impact form of exercise you choose, carve out 15-20 minutes daily to commit to this activity. It really isn’t accidental that we feel better when we exercise because we are reducing cortisol in the process (7). With two kids under the age of three I have to set my alarm and get this done first thing in the morning. If I don’t it’s not happening , so doing it first thing in the morning is the only way for me stay consistent.

3. Be Mindful

Manage stress daily by finding a quiet space to spend a few minutes in prayer or meditation. If you are new to practicing mindfulness, start out with committing to just three minutes a day and work your way up to at least ten minutes daily of deep breathing while quieting your mind. Studies show that mindfulness meditation lowers cortisol levels in the blood suggesting that it can lower stress (8).

4. Use Essential Oils

During times of anxiousness, there are two essential oils that never let me down: holy basil and lavender. Holy basil is an adaptogenic essential oil, which means it can be stimulating or sedating, depending on what the body needs, and is well documented in its benefits for regulating hormones and reducing cortisol. Lavender is the most commonly used essential oil for its relaxing properties. I love to diffuse a few drops of both or use them together in home made cleaning products.

5. Establish A Night-time Routine

In the age of smart phones, it seems everyone goes to sleep playing on their phone, because they use it as an alarm clock! I would so much rather you purchase an alarm clock and begin eliminating “screen-time” (phones, tablets, tv, etc.) for at least an hour before bedtime.

Designate the time you will be asleep (ideally by 10:00pm) and ensure consistency of that bed time by reducing your exposure to blue light (that is emitted from screens). Studies show that blue-light enhances the “awakening response” by raising cortisol levels (9), so if possible, eliminate anything with an electronic “screen” from your bedroom so you can start to establish better quality sleep patterns.

Functional Medicine To Reduce Cortisol And Anxiety

Cortisol definitely gets a bad wrap, but unfortunately without it we can’t respond to stressful situations. The problem is, a poor diet, lack of exercise and inconsistent sleep leave us with too much cortisol in our systems and when unaddressed, allows anxiety to perpetuate.

Working with a functional medicine practitioner will allow you to zero in on your anxiety and take a multi-faceted approach. In the meantime, try some of my natural cortisol-lowering techniques like conscious eating, exercise, mindfulness, essential oils, and a night-time routine so you too can keep your cortisol levels in check and hopefully experience less anxiety.

If you are already trying some of these techniques and aren’t getting anywhere let’s talk.