Cortisol is an important natural hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and is most well-known for its role in the stress response, acting to aid the body and brain when in high-pressure situations.
Some functions of cortisol are:
- Proper glucose metabolism
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
- Immune function and
- Inflammatory response
But an over-exposure to cortisol related to the stress-response system can have serious, negative side-effects on the body’s normal functions. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… The list goes on and on. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy..
Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. The fight-or-flight mechanism is part of the general adaptation syndrome defined in 1936 by Canadian biochemist Hans Selye of McGill University in Montreal. He pubished his revolutionary findings in a simple seventy-four line article in Nature, in which he defined two types of “stress”: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress).
Both eustress and distress release cortisol as part of the general adaption syndrome. Once the alarm to release cortisol has sounded, your body becomes mobilized and ready for action—but there has to be a physical release of fight or flight. Otherwise, cortisol levels build up in the blood which wreaks havoc on your mind and body and causes a myriad of problems related to stress.
Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue,weight gain, food cravings,high blood pressure, unusual headaches and depression.
The danger is when we live under stress for prolonged periods. High blood sugar, blood pressure, diabetes, poor immune function, and poor digestion are common problems millions of people live with, and are directly caused by the fight or flight response.
This fight or flight response is otherwise known as the stress response. It is triggered by the adrenal hormone cortisol.
Cortisol and thyroid hormone
In addition to the above negative effects of cortisol (increased blood sugar, high blood pressure, poor digestion, poor immune function), it also lowers thyroid hormone.
When the body is pushed too hard, thyroid hormone and the metabolic rate goes down. This is the body’s way of protecting itself, like putting on the emergency brakes in a car out of control.
How cortisol lowers active T3:
- Cortisol decreases TSH, lowering thyroid hormone production.
- Cortisol inhibits the conversion of T4 to active T3, and increases the conversion of T4 to reverse T3.
What happens if long term stress continues?
If the adrenals are put under stress long enough, they eventually become exhausted. At this point, the adrenals won’t even be able to make a normal amount of cortisol.
Although too much cortisol is a bad thing, so is too little. Symptoms of low cortisol include:
- Fatigue that is not relieved by sleep.
- Lack of energy throughout the day (often a crash between 3 and 4 PM), but energy finally comes up later in the day.
- Insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, or waking up 3AM. People with adrenal exhaustion often have the most energy at night when they want to sleep.
- Difficulty getting up in the morning.
- Cravings for salty food.
- Feeling light headed upon standing.
- Decreased libido.
- Less ability to handle stress.
- Depressed mood.
- It takes longer to recover from illness or injury.
- Worse memory and thoughts may become unclear.
- Worse symptoms if you miss a meal, and frequent need for snacks.
- Worse symptoms if you miss a meal, and frequent need for snacks.
The most common in both adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism is fatigue. These two conditions often come together.. This is triggered by long term factors such as stress, poor sleep, poor nutrition and toxicity and can not be corrected by only taking thyroid medications. Although hypothyroidism is much more well known among the lay public and medical doctors, I’m very confident that most holistic practitioners consider adrenal fatigue to be a much larger problem, and something that needs to be treated along with hypothyroidism.
Resolve the original stress. This is perhaps the most important part of treating adrenal fatigue, and too often left out. The stress could be from work, home, a poor diet, chronic infection, poor digestion, or more. Anything that puts an extra demand on the body.
I have gone through bouts of Adrenal and Chronic fatigue and Hypothyroidism as a result of over training and not having enough awareness of how to manage day to day stresses.
Looking back two summers ago, I was running the most mileage ever, 80 miles per week and yet I was gaining weight while I was maintaining the same diet. It didn’t make sense to me and I was becoming frustrated with this unwanted weight gain along with feeling overly sluggish no matter how much I rested. My running pace slowed down and my performance suffered.
When I finally went to see my Dr, Dr Jeffrey Morrison, he told me my bloodwork showed that I had Hypothyroidism.
I began evaluating my lifestyle and the demands I put on myself. Along with training, I was just launching my business, my daughter just got married and so forth.. I had to consciensiously make changes in my routine that would support my healing.
With extensive research and guidance from wellness experts, I am now feeling so much better, more vital, and balanced and am careful to know when to cut back from training too hard.
Here are some things you can do to manage cortisol and stress:
Get enough sleep.
We all know that sleep is an essential part of daily life. It’s a necessary part of daily routine as the time you spend sleeping allows the body to repair. During sleep, muscles and outstanding injuries have restful time to heal, the brain is in a state of calm and rejuvenation, heart rate lowers, inflammation calms, and the body recharges to take on the next day.
The circadian rhythm of the body naturally aligns with the cycle of the sun. Cortisol levels are biologically programmed to decrease before going to bed, and increase upon waking to get you ready to tackle your day. However, there are many things we do in the modern day that can inhibit cortisol levels from falling in the evening. Screen time (watching TV, or using a computer or cell phone) in the evenings can send the wrong signal to the brain, and can have the opposite effect of winding down, increasing cortisol.
Lack of quality sleep directly impacts the brain’s ability to function. Without proper rest, the body go into “reserve” mode: maximizing the blood sugar glucose readily available as efficiently as possible, and turning off the body’s reaction to insulin. Thus, causing cortisol to rise.
Clean up your gut.
Trouble with regulating bowel movements, indigestion, and IBS can all, in some way, be attributed to the food we eat and the lifestyle choices we’ve made. All of these digestive issues have a similar root cause—bad bacteria infecting the digestive tract. This bad bacteria feeds off of sugary, starchy foods, poor quality fats, fried foods, and more or less junk. These same foods can also cause tears in your gut lining, as well as indigestion (aka inflammation). The more you eat, the more you crave, and the saga continues: high sugary processed foods lead to a blood sugar spike, with elevates cortisol levels.
To fight this bad bacteria, we must strengthen the good gut flora—also known as probiotics. Probiotics allow food to move through the intestines with ease, while the body absorbs all the vitamins and minerals needed for cellular repair. Good gut bacteria thrives off of not only healthier foods (fiber rich fruits and veggies, protein and healthy fats) but it’s also important to feed your gut both probiotic-rich and prebiotic-rich foods. Probiotic-rich foods include fermented veggies (kimchi, sauerkraut) and kefir, while prebiotic foods are technically undigested carbohydrates that strengthen your good gut flora. Garlic, leeks, legumes and whole, sprouted grains are all prebiotic foods.
Meditation has become one of the most popular ways to relieve stress universally.
Practicing meditation can be used in several important ways.
- It can be a quick-fix stress reliever to help you reverse your body’s stress response and physically relax.
- It can be a part of your daily routine and help you build resilience to stress.
It can be a technique you use to get centered when you’re thrown off by emotional stress. .
By learning to calm your body and mind, your physical and emotional stress can melt away. This leaves you feeling better, refreshed, and ready to face the challenges of your day with a healthy attitude. With regular practice over weeks or months, you can experience even greater benefits.
Exercising, Journaling, Yoga Practice, Walking in Nature are some other ways to decrease stress.
I have also found great benefits in incorporating Adaptogens and Ayurvedic supplements to naturally heal myself back to vitality.
If you feel like you might be suffering from elevated cortisol, see your Dr. or wellness practitioner.