Help for Stressed-out Moms that Works!

by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D

Got kids (or are you about to have kids)? Then you've got stress! If you have stress, then you also have cortisol, and you need to know what to do about it - because excess exposure to cortisol (the body's primary stress hormone) is associated with

  • Weight gain
  • Increased hunger (sugar cravings)
  • Diabetes
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Immune suppression
  • Depression
  • Memory problems

What is cortisol?

As mentioned above, cortisol is the body's primary stress hormone. Under stressful circumstances (like when a lion charges at you from out of the bushes), cortisol is part of the body's "fight-or-flight" reaction, where it helps to regulate carbohydrate metabolism, cardiovascular function, and immune system activity. In this way, a small amount of cortisol is released, for a short period of time (enough time to get away from the lion). Under conditions of chronic stress, however, cortisol exposure is prolonged - and bad things happen to your health (see the partial list above).

Who has elevated cortisol?

The scientific literature shows quite clearly that there are three main groups of people who are likely to have elevated cortisol levels:

  1. Those who are exposed to daily stress from physical or psychological factors…
  2. Those who sleep less than 8.5 hours per night…
  3. Those who excessively restrain their eating patterns for weight loss…

You can get a good idea of your own cortisol exposure by taking a 20-question interactive "Cortisol Self Test"

Who needs to control their cortisol levels?

Everybody! But especially women!

Men and women are known to respond to stress with pretty much the same cortisol response. This means that when both men and women are stressed-out, their cortisol levels go up, and when the stress goes away, their cortisol levels come back down. The differences between men and women in stress response come not from physiology, but from psychology. Research from the University of California at San Francisco shows us that women tend to get stressed-out by different things (family and kids) than men do (careers). Evidence from studies at Goteberg University in Sweden show us that women also are exposed to more hours of stress in a given day then are their male counterparts. This means that working men and women will have similar cortisol levels at work, but upon returning home for the evening, women still had elevated cortisol levels, while those in men fell back top normal ranges. This probably indicates that the women had additional sources of stress at home (laundry, dinner, childcare) compared to the men (who came home to relax).

Why should you control your cortisol levels?

Aside from the strong link between elevated cortisol and obesity, diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, and many other chronic conditions, there is also growing evidence that stress/cortisol exposure during pregnancy may pass an increased risk for certain health problems onto children.

In a variety of animal studies, elevated cortisol levels (such as those that might be seen during "normal" emotional distress in humans) have been linked to high blood pressure, memory problems, immune suppression, and mood disturbances in both pregnant mothers and their children. Researchers believe that the excess cortisol produced by the mother's stressful experiences may influence cortisol metabolism during the baby's crucial development periods.

What can you do to control your cortisol levels?

Luckily, there are a variety of approaches that can be extremely effective in managing stress and controlling cortisol levels. In The Cortisol Connection, I talk about a comprehensive cortisol-control program called "SENSE" (for Stress management, Exercise, Nutrition, Supplementation, and Evaluation). In a perfect world, we'd all be doing each and every step of the SENSE program - but in the imperfect world in which we live, doing any of these steps will be a step in the right direction.

For example, some people will respond very well to a yoga-based program that focuses on relaxation and biofeedback, while other people may not have the time or inclination to participate in such a program. For others, the "Exercise" piece of SENSE - such as a daily walk around the neighborhood - might be the best approach. The key here is to find the right balance of each of the SENSE steps that work for YOU - and then DO them to control your cortisol levels.

An ideal SENSE program for a health pregnant woman might look something like this:

Stress management = Get a good book and spend 30 minutes "losing yourself" in it every day. Research from the University of Melbourne shows that even these short breaks from our stressful days can help to control maternal cortisol levels and reduce stress hormone exposure to the fetus.

Exercise = Get out your walking shoes and spend 20 minutes moving your body. Because cortisol is telling you to "Fight!" or to "Run Away!" - getting up and doing some exercise will help your body to "use" that excess cortisol and get levels back down to normal. Even a small amount of low-intensity exercise - such as walking with a friend, or pushing a baby stroller, will be enough to provide benefits.

Nutrition = Make sure that every time you eat - whether it be a main-meal or a little snack - you're consuming a balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. This means no plain bagels for breakfast - but a half of a whole grain bagel (carbohydrate) with an egg (protein), and some butter or cheese (fat) would be fine. This balanced combination of nutrients has been shown by researchers, at the University of Connecticut, to help control cortisol levels better than the popular low-carb and low-fat diets.

Supplementation = When it comes to using dietary supplements, the rule of "buyer beware" is in effect - especially during pregnancy. As a nutritionist, I recommend that almost everybody, including pregnant women, take a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement to ensure adequate intake of all essential nutrients. In terms of cortisol-control, the most important nutrients for maintaining a normal stress response are calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, and several of the B-complex vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, B6, B12, and pantothenic acid) - all of which can be obtained in a well-balanced multivitamin supplement. A terrific resource for additional information about dietary supplements is SupplementWatch, an independent educational company that receives NO money from supplement companies (so they provide a very balanced perspective about what supplements can and cannot do for you).

Evaluation = This is where, every month or so, you ask yourself, "How's it going" in terms of your stress levels and your cortisol-control regimen. During particularly stressful times, you might want to focus on more aspects of the SENSE program than during less stressful times. You can also use this evaluation period to reflect on what aspects of SENSE worked particularly well for you and which did not - so when stress hits you hard, you know which tools are the most effective ones for you.


The concept of cortisol-control is important at every stage of pregnancy - before, during, and after. In the "before" pregnancy situation, elevated cortisol is associated with reduced fertility and lower conception rates. In the "during" period, elevated maternal cortisol levels are associated with higher blood pressure, memory problems, and depression in both the mother and the offspring. During the "after" pregnancy period, elevated cortisol levels are associated with weight gain (or inability to lose pregnancy weight), increased appetite (sweet cravings), mood-swings, depression, reduced sex drive, and suppressed immune system function (more colds). By controlling your cortisol levels at each stage of pregnancy, as well as during the pre- and post- pregnancy periods, you'll be optimizing overall body metabolism and enhancing your overall health.

Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Dept of Nutrition at the University of Utah and author of The Cortisol Connection - Why stress makes you fat and ruins your health (Hunter House, Sept 2002). Dr. Talbott keeps his cortisol under control in Salt Lake City with his wife and two children and he can be reached through The Cortisol Connection website.

Copyright © Shawn Talbot. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.