Cortisol seems to be a hot topic in health these days.
If you have kept up with recent trends, you most likely have heard of “adrenal fatigue” or people complaining that their cortisol is out of whack. Yet there seems to still be a lot of confusion around the role of cortisol, whether it’s good or bad, and how to modulate it. In today’s blog, I hope to decode this important hormone for you once and for all.
What is Cortisol?
As you may already know, the adrenal glands are the triangle-shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of your kidneys. Similar to ovaries, testicles and the thyroid, the adrenal glands are hormone-producing glands, responsible for regulating our stress response by secreting cortisol and norepinephrine—which are also key contributors to proper thyroid function, the balance of hormones, maintaining one’s ideal weight, stabilizing emotions, and controlling cravings.
However, our brains cannot differentiate between real stress and perceived stress, or between a serious threat and a subtle irritation—and triggers the release of cortisol and norepinephrine despite stress being real or imagined. Moreover, this can be caused by various different types of stressors, including:
- Physical Stress: You experience infections or suffer allergies and food sensitivities. Excessive endurance sports and over-exercising can cause or worsen adrenal fatigue.
- Emotional Stress: Caused by issues like work pressures, financial or relationship problems. Past unresolved trauma and abuse. Feeling unworthy, not good enough, pushing yourself to over-achieve all the time.
- Chemical Stress: Your liver is overloaded by toxins coming from xenoestrogens, antibiotics, prescription drugs; or you have lived or worked near places (like factories) that are highly toxic. Toxins in food, water and molds can also contribute.
- Dietary Stress: A period spent overloading on caffeine, carbs and high-sugar foods can stimulate repeated cortisol release, setting up the adrenal fatigue pattern. Chronic gut issues like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, IBS, “leaky gut” and unaddressed food sensitivities can also cause adrenal fatigue.
When Left Unchecked…
Here’s where the problem starts: if you don’t sufficiently rest and recharge, and your body is in a chronic state of stress, your adrenals will get overtaxed, causing your cortisol levels to drop, and this is where most people start noticing negative symptoms. This process typically occurs in three stages:
Stage 1: The alarm stage of stress is considered an early stage of stress in which the body has adequate energy to fight back against the stress. The body reacts to acute stress by releasing hormones produced by the adrenal glands which mobilize the body’s energy to meet and overcome the stress.
Stage 2: The resistance stage of stress occurs as the body attempts to adapt to the stress when it can no longer maintain an alarm stage. This stage is known as an endless battle, with the body attempting to contain the stress as it’s unable to eliminate it. It can go on for a long period to limit or minimize the stress. The body still has some energy reserves available to resist stress, though less than in the alarm stage.
Stage 3: The exhaustion stage of stress occurs when the body has exhausted its energy levels in an attempt to contain the stress and is now in a holding pattern to prevent a further decline in health. Symptoms may include fatigue, depression, apathy, and at times less than optimal thyroid activity.
Over time, as your adrenal fatigue becomes chronic, it can compromise your natural hormone balance as you chip away at your cortisol reserves, which may lead you to experience enormous energy fluctuations that look something like this:
- You struggle to drag yourself out of bed and can’t get going without a strong coffee or two (or three). Your body feels like you’ve got no gas in the tank.
- After lunch, you finally feel awake enough to get more done. But the energy doesn’t last. A few hours later, you keep wanting to put your head down on the desk.
- In the evening, you’re tired, even nodding off, but you’ve been rushing all day so you want to sit up a bit longer to feel you actually have a life.
- You suddenly get a second wind and end up reading for hours or watching back-to-back episodes of the latest ‘it’ series on Netflix.
- You finally feel tired enough to sleep. You wake from sleep in the middle of the night feeling suddenly alert or very tense. You don’t fall back asleep quickly or only manage to nod off again shortly before it’s time to get up for the day.
Problems Associated with Cortisol Imbalance
One major issue is that adrenal fatigue and insufficiency does not exist in conventional medicine outside of the two extremes: Cushing’s disease (when you secrete too much cortisol) and Addison’s disease (when you don’t secrete enough). Yet this gray area of adrenal exhaustion tends to fall outside the scope of traditional medicine, leaving a vast majority of people undiagnosed and searching for answers.
Additionally, as previously mentioned, cortisol and norepinephrine are partners in crime, yet as cortisol levels are disrupted, norepinephrine levels increase, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure, which can portray symptoms of anxiety. A good example of this is indicative in endurance athletes such as marathon runners who mysteriously experience heart attacks. This occurs because of their spike in norepinephrine and loss of their cortisol buffer, as their cortisol reserves are being depleted the more endurance exercise they engage in leaving their norepinephrine levels unopposed. Thus the imbalance creates greater stress on their hearts.
Know Your Numbers
Measuring cortisol levels is key to help determine adrenal health. The current gold standard for cortisol testing is either a blood or urine test in the morning or a four-point saliva test throughout the day. Ideally, cortisol levels should be at their highest in the morning, as throughout the night our cortisol gradually increases, providing us with a source of glucose to keep our blood sugar stable while we are fasting for the hours that we sleep. As the day progresses cortisol levels gradually decrease. By bedtime levels should be at their lowest, allowing you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Melatonin (another hormone) works in opposition of cortisol levels increase at night and decreasing in the morning, giving way to adequate and restful sleep.
How to Bring Your Body Back to Balance
Although the standard “try and reduce stress” advice isn’t always practical, there are several lifestyle factors in your control that when combined, can help mitigate symptoms of adrenal fatigue, balance hormones, reset your body, and finally have you looking and feeling your best. As cliché as it may sound your number one tool to help reset your adrenals is sleep, so make sure you focus on getting a deep and regenerative sleep (7 to 9 hours per night).
Follow an Adrenal Diet
- Eat regular meals: This not only keeps your blood sugars and energy stable, it also reassures your body that you’re not in crisis. If you are in late phase 2 or in phase 3 of adrenal fatigue, intermittent fasting may not be for you until you can balance your cortisol levels.
- Minimize sugar intake: Cut back on sugar in all its different forms and watch out for hidden sources of sugar in packaged foods such as dextrose and maltose.
- Consume whole, organic foods: foods rich in phytonutrients are great for adrenal support, but supplementation is often needed to support proper adrenal function when the adrenals are taxed.
- Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol.
Exercise Smarter, Not Harder
- Do more gentle forms of exercise: It may seem counterintuitive to slow your exercise pace to get more benefits but it really is important. I recommend exercise like weight training, use of kettlebells and dancing. Take a brisk nature walk.
- Calm your brain with yoga: Yoga is like a moving meditation that connects your mind, breathe and body and induces a relaxation response which helps lower your cortisol levels. At the same time it boosts your alpha brain activity, which promotes greater calm.
Try A Variety of Relaxation Approaches Including:
- Chiropractic care
- Tai Chi
- Proper sleep
- Massage therapy
- Breathing work
- Emotional freedom technique (EFT)
Adopt Adrenal Fatigue Supplements and Adaptogenic Herbs Such As:
- Supplements like B complex, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, and Omega-3 fatty acids can be of great benefit. Bovine adrenal glandular concentrate is also available for supporting healthy adrenal function.
- Adaptogens like:
- Licorice root (delays conversion of cortisol to cortisone)
- Holy basil (sense of the divine in one’s world)
- Cordyceps powder
- Schizandra berry
In conclusion, many factors of health are reliant on your ability to modulate cortisol and avoid entering the resistance and exhaustion phases of stress. Taking a preventative approach to ensuring the health of your adrenals is key in maintaining well-being. Sometimes the smallest shifts in your health habits and behaviours can yield the best results in your overall health, vitality and performance.