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!
Maria Manalang says
Great information and easy to understand. It breaks every informational detail down to a “layman’s term”. It gave me a clearer picture of what is happening to me as described by my doctor. Now I’m empowered on how to correctly handle my situation.
I had my cortisol levels tested and found they are so low all the time, they look like a flat line. What I find interesting/odd is, my common symptoms are that of a person with high cortisol levels.
Stacy Damron says
Me too! Mine are low but all my symptoms are of someone with high cortisol!
same with me so frustrating
What was your treatment
It is true to manage adrenal failure. Little or no alcohol, no stress😄, i had to quit an excelent job due to depression/ anxiety….. low key life, no arguments, vegerable diet, works for me, however, sleep is difficult, no matter what i take, natural or none🤔
Me too!! I’m actually waiting at the docs office right now for some more tests.
Me, too! My symptoms are more for high cortisol, than low. Interesting.
Mine too! What did you find out?
I have extremely low cortisol as well but symptoms of high. I believe it is because I also have low estrogen which matches up with some of the symptoms of high cortisol. I also have low testosterone and progesterone, as well, so things may not line up with one set of symptoms. My point is that if one of your hormones are out of whack then most likely others will be as well and you get any variation of all those symptoms. I have been struggling for many years with health issues and working with conventional doctors got me nowhere. I have been to many different general doctors and an endocrinologist, internist, and gynaecologist and no success. I’ve known my hormones were out of balance but no doctor did anything about it because they say it’s dangerous to mess around with hormones but I know that having hormones not treated and completely out of balance is dangerous too… heart disease, high cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, cancers, etc. Mostly, I was given a prescription for an antidepressant and sent on my way. In my experience this system of Conventional Medicine is very broken.
Although, the standard model of care works well for acute diseases, trauma, infection, and emergencies, sadly, it fails miserably in the care of the chronic diseases that affect so many of us. With chronic conditions such as allergic, digestive, hormonal, metabolic and neurological problems people are finding solutions in the field of Functional Medicine. Whereas, conventional doctors most often match up a medication to a symptom, Functional practitioners will try to figure out what the root of the problem is and they believe in working with their patients to achieve optimal health, makes sense to me…isn’t this the way it should be!? The pharmaceutical companies and their trolls will will tell you it’s quackery but tell that to the people that are finally getting well and able to resolve health issues that have been plaguing them for years. Symptoms are like an “error message” that tells us there is something wrong and collectively the symptoms tell a story of what is truly happening in our bodies and “shutting off” those symptoms with medications doesn’t solve the root of those health issues. Current science tells us that inflammation is the cause of disease and that often that starts in the gut. Functional medicine works with the patient as an individual, and focuses on balancing ALL the functions of the body starting with the gut.
I am working with a Naturopathic Doctor, who practices Functional Medicine, now who specializes in hormone balancing and gut health, which is important to me because I know then that he is up to date and current and I finally feel like I’m making progress. We are dealing with chronic issues I’ve have for many years and getting to the source of the problem. Some intestinal…SIBO and candida overgrowth… and started recently treating low hormone levels with Cortef (cortisol) and Prometrium (progesterone). Although my estrogen and testosterone is also quite low, I am not supplementing with these as progesterone helps to balance other hormones as well. We are going to see how it goes for a few months and retest to see what adjustments need to be made. I’m finally, after 25 years of progressively getting worse and worse, feeling excited and looking forward to feeling amazing and being able to live life fully.
Please educate yourself as well and be involved in you own health care. A lot of doctors are not aware of the new scientific findings, even if they are published in medical journals. It usually takes 20 years for new information to start being implemented in conventional medicine. However, Functional medicine seems to be always on the cusp of the new science. I hope this information will help you find your way to you living your life optimally, one day soon, as well.
I am Arvind living in Bombay, India. My 12 yrs daughter suffering cushioning syndromes due to over production of cortisol hormones. Doctor suggested surgery. But I want to save my daughter & her glands. Pl suggest remedy so she can cure & leave happy life. Because of her I am under deep stress. My email is. email@example.com
Which doctor do you see? I need to find one.
Hi Karen . I recently discovered something called functional medicine and met a functional . Med doc. Haven’t got the test done as yet . But my issues is loss of wight for the past 6 years . And anixety . I am 45 m
Thank you for the sharing your experience and insights regarding cortisol levels and hormone information. In addition to the advice and your ability to document your experience and help others ( like me) in a well written post
Looking into Functional Medicine alternatives I haven’t been implementing in my routine.
Wishing you all the best. Brave you!
Thanks Karen. And thank you to everyone else who posted as well. Very helpful
Wishing you all the best!!
Who is your doctor? I need someone like that! Please email me ~ firstname.lastname@example.org
sante jimvas says
Very well put.
Same here! My levels are low but my symptoms are that of high cortisol.
Debbie I noticed the same thing.
I’m curious as to what that means. It would be nice to get some answers.
I have low cortisol levels with the symptoms of high cortisol levels. Weight gain, diabetes, slightly high blood pressure, and of course extreme fatigue.
Deborah Godwin says
Hi Debby. Just wondering if you have had any luck with your cortisol levels..etc the reason is my son who is 20 is in exactly the same situation. Having very low cortisol and symptoms of very high cortisol.
K Cullotta says
mine too. Symptoms of high but cortisol levels are low.
I have the exact same issue. Low levels of cortisol with symptoms of high. My ACTH is low and I have labs next month. I feel so horrible and my anxiety is off the chart!
Petrca K says
this is weird! same here…symptoms of high but cortisol levels are way below normal level!!
My cortisol is low but have the ‘High cortisol’ symptoms. I’m told I tested negative for Cushings & thyroid levels are “perfect” even though I have a goiter that goes up and down in size & pain.
I thought I could have Addisons, but I’ve gained weight out of no where. Plus Vit D dropped & isn’t responding to treatment. Among all my symptoms my thyroid area hurts & burns. Not my throat just where the thyroid is. Feels like someone is pressing their thumb really hard against it.
So aggravating my symptoms are being easily dismissed by Doctors. Forget the exhaustion, weight gain, pain etc. I’m losing my mind, I’m so scared! At times I can’t speak, I see the words in my mind but my mouth won’t work. Or I can’t remember what things are called & I have to describe what I’m talking about. Can’t remember events etc. I hope someone reads these comments on here & gives up some ideas to bring up to our doctors. 🙁
Eden I’m not sure how long ago this reply was but my Endocrinogist swore I would test positive for cushings but I had no cortisol in my body . Leaving me with addisons. I suffer from other auto immune disorders so you could be having issues with your thyroid causing the symptoms . I had both signs of hyper and hypothyroid . Had a cancerous nodule so they removed my thyroid. I had symptoms for two years before I tested positive for Lupus. Find a good Endocrinogist and rhuematologist . You know your body better than anyone . I didn’t give up and it felt great to finally get answers
This is what happened to me as well. Flat lined cortisol, but symptoms of high. Doctor after doctor. A little elevated TSH, but normal T4. Finally I found a doctor that ran the correct tests. They found that I had Hashimotos. My immune system was creating antibodies to the thyroid. My adrenals were exhausted. I’m still a work in progress, but thyroid glandular and adrenal glandular has been very helpful.
Eden…Have them test for Hashimoto!
Sounds like hashimotos
Dotors are not reliable on symptoms. Cfs or Adrenal Fatigue. I’ve had it snce 2004. Finally getting off meds and changing diet and life style. Ive been to many doctors to find not much on tests. Our bodies are way too stressed. Its normal to feel crazy, brain fog, a whole host of symptoms. Hope you are finding answers.
June Young says
I have that fog too. My test came back as low but I have high symptoms
Cristy Dehart says
I have the same problem but have yet to get any explanation. It’s so frustrating to continue on and no one seems to understand. My doctors just push it off as my Fibromyalgia is causing these issues.
I’m right there with you! It’s so frustrating.
I gave up on my local doctors after they kept dismissing all of my symptoms over a three year period where my health was slowly declining. By the third year I was having trouble balancing, my legs were swelling and very painful with every step, gripping a pen to write was excruciating and as a teacher this made life very difficult. These were only some of the symptoms I was encountering when I decided to take action and make an appointment at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN to have a full team approach work-up. That was the best decision I ever made. I spent 6 weeks going 2-3 times a week seeing one doctor after another. After one test was conducted, they would refer me to the next and so on. Ultimately it boiled down to my thyroid and cortisol inefficiency as two of the main culprits and many of the other symptoms I had were due to my hypothyroidism. Once I was put on medication for that I was a new person! My hometown docs checked my thyroid and said it was “normal”! Now I still have medical issues that I’m going back to Mayo for, a year after my diagnosis, but I have more faith in a full team approach than one doctor at this point.
I wish you well and hope you find the right doctor for you.
Ilyse Halter says
Omg! I have not been tested but I have the same syptoms! I have trouble thinking of the words I want to say yet I can see them in my head! I cant sleep! I gain weight by looking at food. I just want to sleep again
I’ve had symptoms of having high levels but I just had lab work done and my levels are very very low. I have been dealing with this for over three years now and I have repeatedly told my doctor that something is wrong but I kept being told oh you just have depression go see a therapist, was put on depression medication which didn’t work at all I was losing my hair and felt like I was going crazy, I continually gained weight my moods were all over the place then out of no where I stop having my periods and was told that you’re not premenopausal or menopausal your hormones are just high. It’s been beyond frustrating and I’m exhausted all the time it’s a struggle for myself to get out of bed and do the simplest of things.
Marion Hensman says
I had by thyroid removed about seven years ago. I’ve had bouts of extreme insomnia that goes on for months. I’m in my fifth month now. I have to take sleeping pills and even those don’t work properly because I’m suddenly woken up with internal jitters. After I get out of bed I’m like wired. I just had a Drs appointment and while I was there I broke down. I told her that I have a feeling that my cortisol levels need to be checked. They took my blood pressure and that was way high. I have to constantly have my thyroid levels checked because my tsh is all over the place. My t3 and t4 is normal. Right now my tsh is very low but it was normal when all this started. I am about to do a saliva test to see where my cortisol levels are at and then go from there. I have about had it. I just want to be well again. Going for so long with 2,3,or 4 hours of sleep has taken a toll on me.
It is time to go in to your doctor and say this is what I want to work on. If they dismiss you, find another doctor. Tell them upfront you want tests done to find out what is wrong with you. And if you are not satisfied with what they are willing to do do not go back. You are paying them to help you. Don’t get dismissed.
Remember, the article says it goes hand in hand with thyroid problems. Some of your comments are related to thyroid, which is in the throat area, such as weight gain and throat pain, etc. Might want to dig into that too. Have a great day!
Kathy Baker says
I don’t understand why our doctors are not better able to identify and treat these adrenal and thyroid conditions by now. When there are so many women suffering with this, feeling like we don’t have the energy to live and like we are losing our minds or coming down with Alzheimer’s because suddenly we can’t remember basic vocabulary words when speaking, why is there not more help for us. I bet if these adrenal and thyroid problems were more common in men, research $$ would be abundant and physician’s would be better able to diagnose and treat these conditions by now.
Bill T. says
The suggestion that men suffer less from these issues and therefore research and the medical community are less funded or interested is perhaps the most uninformed, ignorant and sexist comment I’ve ever seen on a medical forum/ thread. The truth is men are less likely to engage in social media and public forums to discuss there issues. NOT the lack of the issues existence in males.I.E, We also experience andropause as women experience menopause but most of society has never heard the term andropause. Stick to the science and facts. Take up your feminism issues on a proper forum. Not a medical one. SMH
But you are a man. Health is also a feminist issue.
Elizabeth T. says
You really wouldn’t know what women encounter in the medical community because you are a man. I won’t enumerate the number and details of the different accounts of I’ve heard about woman being dismissed by both male and female doctors…but, here are some examples: On the internet you can read about Gilda Radner’s experience with the medical community when she had cancer. The doctors told her she was having her symptoms because she was high strung and anxious. By the time the doctors really looked into it, she had ovarian cancer that had metastasized and died at an early age. I worked with a woman who complained about bloating and exhaustion and was told it was because she was fat. She too was diagnosed to late with ovarian cancer and died. Another example: My 49 friend year old friend went to the doctors and told him she was unusually tired and he replied “You are a woman who is getting old and is menopausal”. Two weeks later she was getting open heart surgery because she had a huge tumor in her heart. She almost died. My friend’s Mom began acting very oddly and the doctors told the family the mom was neurotic. She suffered for two years before a doctor finally took the full panel of thyroid tests and found she had very low thyroid. She was put on thyroid medication and went back to acting normally, but she had tragically lost two years of her life. My last example: I started having dizziness, exhaustion, nausea and headaches – I couldn’t work or function or participate in any activities or relationships because I was so disabled. Basically, I was bedridden. My doctor claimed it was because I was depressed. After four years, I finally mustered all my strength to find and go to another doctor who sent me to a neurologist who diagnosed me with chronic complicated migraine headaches, prescribed Topamax and the symptoms diminished – after I had lost four years of my life and wages.
I have a husband, two sons, 3 brothers and many other male relatives, friends and coworkers and not one of them have relayed these stories of dismal by the medical community. Nor have I read any accounts of doctors dismissing men’s reports of extremely negative physical symptoms as due to mental/emotional issues, getting older, being fat or menopausal. Can you provide at least five examples where you have proof that this type of dismissal by the medical community was done to men who you personally knew or read about in a reputable source?
So disgusted with doctors. My daughter has been suffering with what we thought was anxiety for years but later found her cortisole levels are triple what they should be! So now what doctor ruled out cushings and now just want to put her on anxiety medicine which she is totally against. Endrocrologist is pushing her back to reg doctor like she cant be bothered feel helpless
Maraine Jordwell says
Have your growth hormone level checked ladies. A lot of these symptoms you’re describing are also symptoms of low growth hormone which, according to my endocrinologist, is nearly always mis diagnosed. Normally a symptom or two is diagnosed and treated leaving the patient still feeling unwell.
I was tested for cushings first and found I had low cortisol but symptoms of high. I was tested for Addison’s and do not have it either. My growth hormone test was in the 20s (lowest side of normal is 44). Treatment is self injections. The results are miraculous! Google it. I had nearly every single symptom. Maybe you do too?
Did they check growth hormone by blood work? Im so frustrated with trying to figure out what is going on with my body over the last year.
I too am seeing a nurse who practices functional medicine. It is where it’s at. She told me my problems are adrenal fatigue and digestive issues where my body isn’t absorbing the vitamins and minerals I’m giving it. My tsh is at 5.5. We are working on cleansing my gut, a supplement for my thyroid and I’ve stopped drinking alcohol. Hoping to see improvement. Already sleeping better.