The nice side of the holiday season is decorating, buying gifts for loved ones, traveling, and lots of time with family. The naughty side: The inevitable stressors that come with all those things.
Polls show that 62% of people describe their stress level as “very or somewhat” elevated during the holidays. We get it, and we won’t tell you not to stress about it. But we do have a gift for you — six science-backed tips on how to hack your stress hormones (and we’re not just talking cortisol), so you can truly have the most wonderful time of the year.
“The most important thing to remember is that you have more power over stress than you think,” says Lifeforce Physician Dr. Russell Van Maele, DO. “You can take control over stress, and not let it control you.” We’ll show you how.
The Stress/Hormone Connection
The first step is understanding how stress works in our bodies. Stress responses are closely connected to our hormones. (This is not a surprise, considering hormones impact everything from libido to muscle mass, sleep, and skin and hair.)
“Stress can lead to changes in the serum level of many hormones, and stress hormones can have both protective and damaging effects on health,” explains Lifeforce Physician Cono Badalamenti, MD, MHSA. “When we experience stressful situations, our bodies respond to support us by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. However, prolonged periods of stress can cause cortisol and adrenaline to remain elevated, leading to a hormonal imbalance that can have a profound effect on our health. Chronic stress can take a toll, and it’s important to manage stress hormone levels by identifying and treating the potential causes of imbalance.”
To do that, let’s take a look at the main stress hormones and how they work.
3 Key Stress Hormones to Know
What it is: When you hear the term “stress hormone,” you probably think of cortisol. That’s because it’s “the primary stress hormone that people are familiar with,” says Dr. Badalamenti. “It's a steroid hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to stress.” He explains that cortisol is the main type of glucocorticoids, which are hormones that impact inflammation and metabolism in your muscles, fat, liver, and bones.
What it does: Cortisol gets a bad rap (more on why in a minute), but it’s actually necessary for our survival. “We need it to wake up in the morning, to have a heart rate, and to have blood pressure. It's very important,” Dr. Van Maele says. “The problem is when cortisol starts to overpower the rest of your body’s hormones.”
Indeed, it’s a Goldilocks situation — you want just the right amount of cortisol. Too much over time and you’ll feel the negative effects. “Excess cortisol alone can contribute to high blood pressure, mood changes, low libido, weight gain, and irregular periods. Chronic stress can also interfere with other hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, further exacerbating these problems and adding others,” warns Dr. Badalamenti. “Cortisol also has anti-inflammatory effects, especially at higher amounts, and can suppress the immune system.”
When it comes to cortisol, timing is everything. Dr. Van Maele explains, “Cortisol will typically spike in the morning and decrease as the day goes on. It should be up with the sun and down with the sun. However, when your cortisol spikes later in the day, it’s going to affect your sleep, sexual function, and thyroid in negative ways.” Read on for tips to prevent that.
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine
What they are: Epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline) are both types of catecholamines, hormones produced by the adrenal medulla, according to Dr. Badalamenti.
“These hormones are responsible for all the physiological characteristics of the stress response — the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response,” he says. “They are released in response to stress and designed to help us deal with stressful situations by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.” Translation: when you encounter something dangerous, these hormones prepare your body to face down the threat or run the other way as fast as you can.
What they do: “While adrenaline can be life-saving in acute situations, chronic exposure can lead to a range of negative health effects,” Dr. Badalamenti says. He warns that the persistent release of adrenaline can increase the risk of hypertension, suppress the immune system, and contribute to digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and indigestion. “Chronic stress levels can also lead to changes in metabolism, including increased production of glucose, which can contribute to insulin resistance and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes,” he adds.
Elevated adrenaline over time is also linked to weight gain, an increased risk of depression and anxiety, sleep disruptions, and impaired cognitive function.
6 Ways to Hack Your Stress Hormones This Holidays Season
All that may sound, well, stressful, but we can’t stress this enough — you have the power to combat these effects with simple lifestyle shifts. Here are our top expert-backed tips.
1. Show Stress Who’s Boss
“I tell my patients to be intentional about controlling when stress happens. You’re the boss of your stress,” Dr. Van Maele says. “There are some stressors on the body — like exercise, cold plunges, and saunas — that you can choose. Then, there are things that are out of your control, like job, relationship, and family hardships. When you regularly do things to stress your body intentionally, it makes your response to uncontrolled stressors much more tolerable. Your body learns to regulate stress and your resilience improves.”
Remember how we talked about the natural timing of cortisol? You can optimize it by matching your cortisol curve to your circadian rhythm. For example, do healthy stressors that spike your cortisol — like exercise, cold plunges, or cold showers — in the morning, Dr. Van Maele suggests. As the sun is powering down, so should you. In the evening, help your cortisol levels lower by turning off the TV, not listening to the news or working, and relaxing in warm lighting. Make sure to keep up this healthy schedule even during the busy holiday season.
2. Stick to Your Exercise Routine
Sweat out stress. Dr. Badalamenti notes, “Regular exercise can help reduce stress hormone levels and promote gut microbiome diversity.” (Research shows the connection between gut health, stress, and mental health.) “Taking a brisk walk, light stretching, or activity bursts can help when feeling stressed,” he adds. “Movement therapies, such as yoga and tai chi, combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm.”
Dr. Van Maele suggests making movement a fun family activity during the holiday season. “My family plays football on Thanksgiving and goes ice skating at Christmas,” he says. “Encourage your family to take a brisk walk with you or do any activity you love.”
3. Breathe Easy
“I am a huge advocate of mindfulness practices,” says Dr. Badalamenti. He recommends deep abdominal breathing (such as the 4-7-8 breathing technique), visualization exercises, and repetitive affirmations or positive words.
Deep breathing and mindfulness techniques have also been shown to help lower blood pressure. In research from Massachusetts General Hospital, patients with hypertension who practiced a relaxation response achieved a systolic blood pressure reduction. In the second phase of the trial, 50% of those who implemented the techniques were able to eliminate at least one of their blood pressure medications.
You can take a few deep belly breaths anytime — even in the middle of a holiday party or family event.
4. Sleep Off Stress
Especially during a hectic holiday season, “never forget about sleep,” says Dr. Van Maele. “Sleep is the best way to re-charge for your stress hormones, and we always need to prioritize it.” Studies show that when you don’t get enough sleep, it causes your body to secrete more cortisol the next day.
“Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and establish a consistent sleep schedule,” recommends Dr. Badalamenti. Check out this post for more tips to optimize your sleep.
5. Support Yourself with Nutraceuticals
Stock up on soothing supplements this season. Dr. Badalamenti notes that probiotics promote gut health and help reduce stress hormone levels. He also recommends adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and rhodiola, the amino acid L-Theanine, and magnesium to support nervous system function and stress management.
“I am a fan of Peak Healthspan™️, which has not only rhodiola, but a blend of cellular support that can improve stress resilience at a cellular level,” Dr. Badalamenti says. “For those who need a little more help with rest and recovery, try Peak Rest™️, which has ashwagandha, magnesium, L-theanine, and several other ingredients to keep the stress response from being overactive and to improve sleep quality.” Try mixing it into a nighttime cup of peppermint tea for some holiday flair!
6. Soak Up the Love
We know it’s cliché, but this tip is as simple as “live, laugh, love.” The funny thing is that research shows laughter helps reduce the release of cortisol and epinephrine. Studies also find that nurturing strong relationships protects against the harmful effects of stress.
So take advantage of quality time with family and friends this season. “Even though this time of year can be stressful, don’t miss the forest through the trees,” Dr. Van Maele says. “This is a time we should be spending with the people we love. No one is going to care about the presents or how good the food is in the long run. If you change your focus to the things that matter most in life, as opposed to the things that won’t matter in a week, that’s a major stress lifted.”
Looking for more tips to soothe stress and feel your best? With the Lifeforce Membership, you’ll have access to a dedicated wellness support team, including a clinician and certified health coach. You’ll receive personalized advice, accountability, and support to reach all your goals. Join the Membership here.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Russell Van Maele, DO, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine
Cono Badalamenti, MD, MHSA, ABFM Diplomate, American Board of Family Medicine, ABLM Diplomate, American Board of Lifestyle Medicine