A couple of months ago, I did a series on the HPA axis and it's connection to our health. I also mentioned cortisol, our stress hormone, in that series, but today, I wanted to dedicate a little more time to discussing cortisol. It is a hormone with which I have extremely personal experience with, as my cortisol levels have been high each time I've tested my adrenal hormones (dating back to 2016).
Cortisol is our stress hormone. It is necessary for human life and has numerous functions including breaking down proteins into amino acids, increasing energy, improving digestion, easing joint movement, enhancing the immune system, and providing emotional stability. It's a pretty impressive hormone!
Cortisol is a hormone that runs on a rhythm. It is meant to be high in the morning to wake us up and slowly fall throughout the day as melatonin rises to help us sleep at night. However, problems start to arise when this rhythm becomes dysregulated. This could mean that our cortisol is chronically high, vastly depleted, off the regular rhythm it should follow, or some combination of these.
Chronic, prolonged stress from any number of causes is at the root of cortisol dysregulation. This might include, but isn't limited to poor diet choices, gut infections, food sensitivities and allergies, lack of sleep, too much/too little exercise, mental and emotional stress, hormonal imbalances, blood sugar dysregulation, financial strain, relationship troubles, career issues or unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and so much more.
When the problem is that cortisol is chronically elevated, we start to see issues with our body's ability to regulate and manage our blood sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when our cells do not respond to insulin, whose job it is to take glucose (sugar) from the blood stream and shuttle it away for storage. Having insulin resistance, in turn, can also create cortisol resistance. This follows a similar path and means that our body has to continually pump out more and more cortisol to respond to even the smallest of stressors because the body has become numb to its effects. It's like an alcoholic who builds up a tolerance and needs more and more alcohol to get the effect they desire.
When we start to have cortisol resistance and high cortisol levels, we also see a decrease in DHEA levels and other steroid/sex hormones, thyroid issues, insomnia, anxiety, agitation, restlessness, digestive issues, depression of the immune system, stubborn mid-section weight gain, and inflammation. This is not a good state to be in long term (I should know firsthand, as my cortisol has been high for at least 3 years, if not longer) as it creates a catabolic (breaking down) state in the body. This is not ideal.
Eventually, our cortisol levels start to bottom out after being high for so long. This also results in a host of issues including inflammation, the down-regulation of other hormones, lack of neurotransmitters (which help with mental health), glucose/blood sugar instability, gut issues, trouble staying asleep, and feeling nervous or depressed.
As you can see, a lot of these symptoms overlap, which is why it is SO CRITICAL to test and see what your cortisol rhythm is. Then, you can start to piece together a plan to help either lower or raise or regulate your cortisol according to your results.
There are several ways to test your cortisol. The conventional doc will test one sample via blood. This is not accurate or desired as it measures the inactive form of cortisol AND only gives you one snapshot, not the full picture of your cortisol rhythm. There is no context provided.
On the other hand, saliva and urine tests provide better indicators of one's overall cortisol levels AND pattern and are much easier to take samples several times throughout the day in order to piece together the picture of your cortisol pattern. I have the ability to order both types of these tests, so if you are interested in learning more, please let me know!
If you suspect you have any sort of cortisol issues, I cannot recommend testing enough. The symptoms of having high or low cortisol levels can sometimes overlap, so you don't want to take a stimulating supplement thinking it will help your low cortisol when you actually have high cortisol.
When it comes to healing and nourishing your adrenals, you must address stress first and foremost. Stress from any number of factors can impact our cortisol levels. Dietary stress is probably the biggest, but mental and emotional, as well as physical stressors will cause problems too.
Once the root causes are addressed (digestion, blood sugar, mental health, etc), then we can layer in supplemental support. This will vary person to person, which is again why it is so important to test! There are a mixture of supplements that I generally recommend for cortisol dysregulation that help lower cortisol, raise it, or even out the rhythm.
If you have questions or are ready to take control of your health, please let me know! The first step is being proactive enough to invest in your health and test! Then together, we can make a personalized plan.