The Cortisol Hack: Boosting Oxytocin to Improve Hormone Balance
Hormonal imbalances can lead to a variety of health issues, including weight gain, fatigue, mood swings, and anxiety. But what if there was an easy hack you could use on a daily basis to knock your cortisol back down, and best of all it is fun to make! In this article, I'll discuss how cortisol affects hormones, the role of oxytocin in hormone balance, and how to boost oxytocin levels naturally to improve insulin sensitivity and progesterone levels. Let's dive in.
Understanding Cortisol and its Effects on Hormones
Cortisol is often referred to as the "stress hormone" because it is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It plays a crucial role in the body's fight or flight response, helping to increase blood sugar levels and blood pressure to provide energy and oxygen to the body during stressful situations. This can be incredibly helpful when you're doing a high intensity workout or your kid scoots out of control towards a road. However, when cortisol levels remain chronically elevated, it can have negative effects on hormone production and hormone balance.
High levels of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance - hello belly fat - and this can increase the risk of developing PCOS and type 2 diabetes down the line. Cortisol also influences the production of other hormones, such as progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone. When cortisol levels are high, it can suppress progesterone production, leading to a hormonal imbalance that can cause fertility issues, mood swings, and many other peri-menopausal symptoms like heavy periods, sleep issues, migraines, anxiety and heart palpitations.
The Role of Oxytocin in Hormone Balance
Oxytocin is often referred to as the "love hormone" because it is released in response to social bonding, touch, and other positive social interactions. It plays a crucial role in hormone balance by inhibiting the release of cortisol and promoting the release of other hormones, such as progesterone and testosterone.
Oxytocin also helps to improve insulin sensitivity - goodbye belly fat - while also reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It promotes feelings of relaxation and reduces stress, which can improve overall hormone balance and reduce the negative effects of cortisol on the body.
How to Boost Oxytocin Levels Naturally
There are several ways to boost oxytocin levels naturally.
Connecting with friends
Spending time with friends and engaging in deep and meaningful conversations can help to increase oxytocin levels. A 10 second hug or phone call to a mate who makes you laugh can offer a total reset for your stress response on a hard day. Having a handful of people you can call on when the shit hits the fan is worth its weight in gold. This fact alone makes investing time in your friendships a massive act of self-care.
Spending time in nature
Spending time in nature automatically reduces stress and promotes feelings of relaxation, which in turn increases oxytocin levels. Taking a walk in the park, going for a forest stroll, or spending time in the garden can all be beneficial. Your gut microbes will thank you too as they benefit from exposure to soil and other natural organisms in the air that you breathe.
Discovering new treasures
Exploring new places or trying new things can increase oxytocin levels. This could be discovering a new forest trail, trying a new hobby, taking a cooking class or visiting a new town or place.
Practicing gratitude and kindness has been shown to increase oxytocin levels. According to a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, practicing gratitude and kindness can increase oxytocin levels by up to 50%. Taking just a few minutes each day to reflect on the things you are grateful for or performing acts of kindness towards others can have a significant impact on reducing stress and promoting positive emotions.
Time with animals
Interacting with animals can help to increase oxytocin levels, especially when it involves touch. Petting a dog or cat, or spending time with horses can be particularly beneficial. Studies have shown that interacting with animals can increase oxytocin levels by up to 60%, with the effect being more significant in women than men. This increase in oxytocin levels can lead to reduced anxiety, improved mood, and increased social bonding. In fact, a study conducted on individuals with PTSD showed that spending time with animals resulted in a 45% reduction in symptoms. Moreover, it has been observed that oxytocin levels in both humans and animals increase during positive social interactions, so it's not just us humans that reap the benefits from touch.
Engaging in self-care activities can also increase oxytocin levels, knocking your cortisol levels down a notch or two. Self-care is such a broad term, it's really personal and doesn't need to be extravagant or expensive. Activities like taking time to read for pleasure or take an epsom salt bath, enjoying good food, getting a massage from a friend or partner, practicing yoga, spending time with friends, and doing things that give you joy can all contribute to this.
Additionally, allowing someone to take care of you, surrendering to being loved or cared for are powerful forms of self-care. And before you start feeling any ounce of guilt... the person caring for you will get a little hit of oxytocin too. It's a total win, win.
Spending time with family or your chosen family can increase oxytocin levels through physical contact, laughter, making eye contact or telling someone you love them.
Examples of this could be watching your little people run freely in nature, special time with grandparents, having quality time with loved ones or having a cuddle on the sofa at the end of a hard day.
Engaging in creative activities that feed your soul, such as painting, photography, going to an exhibition or writing, has been shown to have numerous benefits for the brain, including the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation, and oxytocin. This combination can lead to increased feelings of happiness and fulfilment, improved cognitive function, and enhanced problem-solving skills, while reducing stress and anxiety, which naturally leads into improving overall mental health.
Wild swimming, the practice of swimming in nature such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, has been found to have numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. One of these benefits is the release of oxytocin. Cold-water swimming has been found to be especially effective in stimulating the release of oxytocin, as the shock of the cold water on the body triggers the release of this hormone. Additionally, wild swimming can also help to reduce stress and anxiety, improve circulation and immune function, and promote a sense of connection with nature.
Breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact are two powerful ways to increase oxytocin levels in both adult and baby. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin in both the mother and baby, leading to increased relaxation and bonding between the two. Similarly, skin-to-skin contact can also stimulate oxytocin release, leading to feelings of warmth, connection, and relaxation. These activities can also have long-term benefits for both people, including improved immune function, reduced stress and anxiety, and increased overall connection and wellbeing.
Dancing can be a fun and stimulating way to increase oxytocin levels, especially when done with a group of friends or in a social setting but I do love nothing better than having a little boogie around the kitchen with the music full ball.
Dancing also provides a creative way to get your body moving, which can improve cardiovascular health, strengthen muscles and bones, and enhance coordination and balance.
Doing things that scare you
Engaging in activities that push you out of your comfort zone, such as following your passion, public speaking or zip lining through the forest, can be stimulating and increase oxytocin levels in an exhilarating way.
Why is oxytocin so influential?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain's hypothalamus region and sometimes influenced by the amygdala, a region associated with fear and memories. It is then released into the bloodstream or other parts of the brain and spinal cord, where it binds to receptors, influencing our feelings and behaviour towards others. Oxytocin affects the autonomic nervous and immune systems, which includes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that releases many hormones. It has broad health implications such as facilitating adaptation to stressors, development, growth, healing, reproduction, and social behaviour. It also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, keeping blood pressure and cortisol levels in check.
Understanding the hormone hierarchy
Progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone are all important hormones for overall health and wellbeing. Progesterone plays a crucial role in regulating the menstrual cycle, supporting pregnancy and calming the mind. Oestrogen is important for bone health, cardiovascular health, and maintaining healthy skin and hair. Testosterone is important for maintaining muscle mass, bone density, and sexual function.
When cortisol levels are chronically elevated, it can suppress the production of progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone, leading to hormonal imbalances.
Progesterone particularly suffers when cortisol is high.
Cortisol spikes cause an increase in insulin which have a direct effect over your hormones, specifically oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
There are two areas in your brain that balance hormones in the body - the hypothalamus and pituitary. When the hypothalamus gets a cortisol signal from your adrenal glands it tells the pituitary you are not safe. The pituitary then sends a signal to the pancreas to get ready for an increased need to glucose in the tissues (to run away from the tiger) and it responds by reviving up insulin.
When insulin is high, messages go back to the brain to shut down oestrogen and progesterone as these hormones aren't as important in the hierarchy for survival.
The good news? The minute oxytocin is produced, it tells the body it's safe and it shuts down cortisol. This is followed by better glucose management, a reduction in insulin and a rebalancing of sex hormones. It's a beautiful hormone that brings us back into balance.
When your pancreas is pumping out insulin, it can be really hard to loose weight. Shockingly, cortisol can raise your insulin as much as a brownie can.
Prioritizing Oxytocin for Hormone Balance
By prioritizing oxytocin production, it can benefit hormone health and balance. Incorporating activities that promote the release of oxytocin into your daily routine, you can reduce cortisol levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and promote the production of other important hormones, such as progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone.
As a health coach, my aim is to provide support, education and assistance to my clients in achieving optimal physical and mental wellbeing. If you would like to gain further insight into integrating activities that stimulate oxytocin production into your daily routine or have any other health-related inquiries, I'd welcome you to either join my mailing list or drop me an email or DM me on instagram. Whatever works, I'd be happy to hear from you.
Let's take care of you.