The hormones produced by your adrenal glands, particularly the stress hormone cortisol, play an important role in regulating your immune system. If your cortisol levels go too low or too high, this can lead to regular infections, chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases or allergies. Maintaining a balanced level of cortisol is an important part of staying healthy.
One of cortisol’s many functions is to reduce inflammation. When your body encounters a pathogen, the immune system responds by quickly attacking it. This causes inflammation, which is often a good thing (it means the immune system is working). In those with healthy immune and endocrine systems, cortisol works to moderate the inflammation caused by an immune system response, but it does not completely eliminate it.
Cortisol levels can become imbalanced during the different stages of Adrenal Fatigue. In fact, your cortisol levels will largely depend on which stage of the condition you have reached. If you are still in the early stages, your cortisol levels are likely to be elevated, along with epinephrine and norepinephrine. If you are in the later stages of Adrenal Fatigue, your cortisol levels will be much, much lower. Neither result is beneficial for your immune system.
During the early stages of Adrenal Fatigue, your HPA axis is firing on all cylinders and producing lots of stress hormones. This means that your cortisol level is high, which suppresses the immune system and reduces inflammation.
Why does the body do this? Simply put, the immune system is a non-essential function for the kind of short-term stressful situation that our endocrine system is designed to counter. Reducing the immune system’s effectiveness for a few hours, while we escape whatever physical danger is threatening us, is a pretty safe gamble. But the problem is that modern stress does not simply ‘go away’ after a few hours. Today’s stressors tend to be long term and entrenched, which means that cortisol levels can stay elevated for months or years.
Needless to say, a suppressed immune system leaves us vulnerable to disease. And those of us who are under long term stress tend to suffer disproportionately from cold and flu viruses, as well as bacterial infections.
Let’s take one of the most stressful events in life – losing a love one – as an example. In 2011 researchers at the University of Birmingham conducted a study into the effect of bereavement on neutrophils (a type of white blood cell). They concluded that:
“The emotional stress of bereavement is associated with suppressed neutrophil superoxide production and with a raised cortisol:DHEAS ratio. The stress of bereavement exaggerates the age-related decline in HPA axis and combines with immune ageing to further suppress immune function, which may help to the explain increased risk of infection in bereaved older adults.”
Looking at Cushing’s Syndrome can also be a useful guide. This condition is sometimes known as hypercortisolism and is recognized through excessively high levels of cortisol. From reading the above, you might expect that Cushing’s sufferers tend to be vulnerable to regular infections. And in fact, according to the Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation, “Cushing’s syndrome, with its elevated cortisol levels, certainly suppresses the immune system. Patients with Cushing’s syndrome are at risk for many unique and unusual infectious diseases.”
Chronic stress puts your health at risk (Mayo Clinic)
Neutrophil function and cortisol:DHEAS ratio in bereaved older adults (University of Birmingham)
Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health (Dr. Ronald Glaser, 2005)
What effect does Cushing’s have on the immune system? (Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation)
If elevated cortisol is bad for our immune systems, then lowering our cortisol levels must be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. If your cortisol falls too far below the optimal level then you are completely removing the safety valve that prevents your immune system from over-reacting to threats.
During the later stages of Adrenal Fatigue the adrenal glands become tired, depleted and unable to produce the hormones that your body needs. Cortisol levels begin to fall rapidly and the Adrenal Fatigue sufferer quickly switches from having too much cortisol to having very little indeed.
This means that the regulating anti-inflammatory effect of cortisol is absent. Without sufficient cortisol, there is nothing to prevent severe, chronic inflammation. In effect, the immune system is running out of control. Low cortisol leads to increased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which lead to an over-activation of the immune system and inflammation. According to Dr. Thomas Guilliams, an immunologist, “The result is amplification of numerous inflammatory pathways and increased susceptibility to developing inflammatory diseases, including autoimmune diseases, mood disorders, atopy, malignancy, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain syndromes, obesity, glucose dysregulation and fibromyalgia.”