Most people would be forgiven for thinking that adrenaline overload is the number one enemy for adrenal fatigue sufferers. However, cortisol has an equally important role when it comes to adrenal health. Also known as the “stress hormone”, cortisol is responsible for a number of important physiological processes, not least in determining your body’s ability to cope with stress.
Having too much, or indeed too little cortisol in your system can result in a number of devastating health problems. For this reason, it’s vitally important for anyone with adrenal fatigue to understand why cortisol is so fundamental for balanced adrenal health.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands, and is transported around your body via the bloodstream. When your adrenal glands are overworked and exhausted, the mechanisms that control this process can very quickly become dysregulated. This can result in erratic spikes of cortisol at inappropriate times. If this continues to happen more and more frequently, it will eventually lead to burnout. In late stage adrenal fatigue, your body is no longer able to effectively regulate cortisol levels correctly. What follows, are those all too familiar feelings of being zapped of energy, and a general lack of enthusiasm for life.
So how do you know if your cortisol levels are too high or too low? What does this mean for people looking to improve their adrenal health?
Why is cortisol so important?
It’s normal for cortisol levels to fluctuate throughout the day. Let me give you an example.
In the morning, your body knows you need to “get up and go”, so your cortisol levels will naturally peak at around 8am. This ensures you get the burst of energy you need in order to start your day. Conversely, it makes sense that levels naturally drop in the evening when you’re preparing your body for sleep.
During stressful periods, or at times when you’re in “fight or flight” mode, your body knows to make cortisol to help you deal with the stress. While this response is vital, it’s also important that cortisol levels return to normal once the stressful event has passed.
Unfortunately, so many of us are leading such busy, hectic lives that this level of stress has almost become the norm. The truth is, for some people the stress response is activated so many times during the day that the body literally has no time to recover. The end result? You end up feeling totally depleted.
When your body is so pre-occupied with manufacturing cortisol, it has no reserves for making other important hormones and neurotransmitters like aldosterone, testosterone and epinephrine which are so invaluable for keeping stress under control.
How can you tell if your cortisol levels are too high?
Having very high levels of cortisol can cause a number of unpleasant symptoms. Worse still, if the situation is left unmanaged, it can eventually lead to a very serious condition known as Cushing’s Syndrome.
Listed below are some commonly reported symptoms caused by high cortisol:
- Rapid weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Mood swings, anxiety and depression
- Impaired cognitive function (fuzzy brain)
- Dampened thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Poor sleep
- Lowered immune function
- Slow wound healing
Elevated levels of cortisol can also seriously impair your ability to absorb vital vitamins and minerals from your food. This is because cortisol tells your body to stop producing the enzymes it needs for digestion. This makes sense when you understand that in full on fight or flight mode, eating is not a top priority. This is compounded by the fact that high cortisol levels increase your appetite, making you reach for sweet, high calorific foods. This is one of the major reasons why high cortisol levels can lead to excess weight gain and belly fat.
What about if your cortisol levels are too low?
This situation comes about when the adrenal glands are chronically fatigued, depleted and unable to meet the demands placed on them by your body. It can also be as a result of an auto-immune condition known as Addison’s disease, in which antibodies attack the adrenal cortex and cause a whole range of very unpleasant symptoms.
Listed below are some common symptoms of very low cortisol:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Dark rings under the eyes
- Cravings for salty food
The good news is that because this doesn’t happen overnight, blood tests can detect problems long before they go on to cause irreparable damage.
How can you test your cortisol levels?
If you’re worried about your cortisol levels, your doctor can arrange for you to have tests. However, if you do decide to go down this route, it’s important to bear in mind that there are a variety of tests available, and the results can be subject to different interpretations. For this reason, working alongside a naturopath (as well as your regular MD) is one of the surest ways to see the big picture. Most doctors agree that conducting a simple saliva test is the most accurate way to monitor cortisol levels over time.
For more information about testing for adrenal fatigue, read my article on testing for adrenal fatigue.
Understanding your cortisol levels is an important step in the process of learning to manage your adrenal fatigue. In the meantime, one of the very best things you can do is to develop strategies to manage your stress.
Meditation, eating nourishing food, getting enough fresh air, and taking regular exercise might sound like basic strategies, but truly are the fundamental building blocks for developing methods of coping with adrenal exhaustion. Read around the blog for many more helpful tips to get you started on your road to recovery!