How to Identify Your Cortisol Curve

One of hormones produced in the adrenal glands, cortisol plays an important role in the body, helping us to deal with stress and to regulate our natural body clock. When our cortisol follows a healthy, normal pattern, it follows what’s known as a curve. At its highest in the morning to help us face the onslaught of the day, it gradually begins to taper off until it’s at its lowest in the evening when we need to relax, which is when cortisol gives way to another important hormone, melatonin, which we need for sleep. So far so good, but sometimes our cortisol curve can be out of whack, causing not just problems for sleep but for mood, weight gain and much more. Knowing how to identify what your cortisol is doing is an important part of being able to address it. Here’s how…

Morning spike

On a normal day when stress levels are average or being managed, you should find your cortisol is at its peak around 7am. We need this so that we wake feeling raring to go and ready to face the challenges of the day. If, however, you’re finding yourself wide awake in the early hours and feeling wired well before 7am, it could because your cortisol levels are firing too early. This early morning spike could then have implications later on, causing you to feel irritable mid-morning and then like you’re about to crash and burn.

Daytime spike

Ideally from midday onwards you should start to feel the effects of cortisol tailing off, finding that you feel less pumped up and more relaxed as the day continues. If you’re in a constantly high stress state and feeling tightly wound all day, the chances are you’re experiencing a daytime cortisol spike when you shouldn’t.

Evening spike

In an ideal world, your cortisol should decrease as the day ends, so that come bedtime you’re feeling suitably relaxed. If, however, you feel like you’re at your most fired up in the evenings and that it’s impossible to wind down, your cortisol levels are probably out of whack. If you usually like to do your daily workout after work or in the evening, this could be exacerbating the problem without you releasing it, because exercise naturally causes cortisol levels to rise. One way to negate that is to move your sessions to pre-work to capitalise on your natural spike. If you can’t keep away from evening workouts, then try switching high intensity sessions for something that creates what’s known as calm energy, such as yoga or Pilates.

How to reset your cortisol curve

There are lots of ways to try and reset your cortisol curve so that it’s more in tune with what your body naturally wants to do. The obvious things like reducing stress and consumption of alcohol and stimulants especially before bed is important, as is regular exercise, which despite causing a spike in cortisol, actually helps to maintain steady and healthy levels long-term and promotes better sleep. Keeping good sleep hygiene is crucial too, which means going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day regardless of the day or your schedule. In doing this, you can help reset your circadian rhythm and help tell your body when to produce melatonin when it should.