Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is responsible for a wide range of processes within the body including immune responses, the regulation of metabolism, and acting as an anti-inflammatory. It also plays an important role in the way in which the body responds to stress. It is created in the cortex of the adrenal glands and is transported and released through the body by our blood.
The balance of cortisol levels that are present within the body at any one time is extremely important for our overall health. Having too much and too little cortisol in your system can cause a number of issues that range from minor to serious. The effects of having too much cortisol in the body can include rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, and severe mood swings that manifest in anxiety and depression. On the other hand, individuals who possess an extremely low amount of cortisol are susceptible to experiencing problems such as dizziness, fatigue, weight loss and a peculiar darkening in certain skin areas.
Fortunately, the body possesses a clever system that enables us to regulate the levels of cortisol that are present in our systems. The optimal level, interestingly, varies quite drastically at different times throughout the day.
Cortisol levels are generally high in the morning as we wake from a prolonged period of sleep, with an increase of up to fifty percent in the twenty to thirty minutes after waking. This is known as the ‘cortisol awakening response’. Then, as the day progresses, our cortisol levels naturally begin to drop in a fairly constant and regular fashion that is termed a diurnal rhythm, ending up as low in the late evening. This allows the body to keep a regular sleeping pattern, with the cortisol level dropping for periods of sleep, then replenishing during the following morning.
The body can also detect and change the timing and cycle of cortisol production and release for certain individuals. A great example is those individuals who work night shifts. In these cases, the pattern and timing of the release of cortisol is reversed to allow for higher levels throughout the late evening and early morning hours. For those of you who travel long distances, a similar rearrangement occurs when we experience jetlag.
Cortisol levels are not just dependent on the time of day. Stress also plays an important role. The exact response depends on the type of stress, whether its short-term acute stress or long-term chronic stress. For short-term stressors like an argument or a fall, we will see a brief spike in cortisol. For longer term stressors like work stress or illness, we see a consistently higher level of cortisol at all times of the day.
How does all this relate to Adrenal Fatigue? Well, those long-term stressors can eventually deplete the nutrients and precursors that we need to produce cortisol and other hormones. In other words, chronic stress will raise your cortisol levels for a while, but eventually your body is unable to continue producing cortisol in such high amounts. At this point we start to see declines in not only cortisol, but also key hormones and neurotransmitters like aldosterone, testosterone, epinephrine and more. Additionally the diurnal rhythm of cortisol production is often disrupted, resulting in late-evening spikes that cause insomnia.
This dysregulation of hormone production is the ‘burnout’ that follows long periods of stress. The body is no longer able to regulate cortisol levels effectively, which leads to symptoms like fatigue, a lack of enthusiasm, insomnia, and a general lack of vitality.
How can we reverse the effects of long-term stress and regain our energy levels? A combination of good nutrition, supplementation, and effective stress management techniques can quickly result in some significant changes. In the longer term, eliminating the causes of stress is crucial for a full recovery.