Cortisol the Stress Hormone
Health and Wellness,  Health and Wellness for People Over 50,  The Over 50 Lifestyle

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone and What You Need To Know For Adrenal Health

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Cortisol is a hormone that may affect your Adrenal health. The medical community is more readily accepting Adrenal Fatigue, but many doctors still deny an issue. Adrenal Fatigue is when your body is not producing enough cortisol levels or when the pituitary gland doesn’t direct the adrenal glands to make cortisol. The opposite problem can happen when you are producing too much cortisol.

Your Adrenal Glands control and affect your cortisol levels. Cortisol is called the “stress hormone” because it is a steroid hormone that helps the body respond to stress. Your cortisol levels spike during times of high stress. When you are constantly being stressed, you may be producing too much cortisol, which can wreak havoc on your body. High levels of cortisol may cause weight gain, raise your blood pressure, disrupt sleep, negatively impact mood, reduce your energy levels and contribute to diabetes.

The term “adrenal fatigue” was coined in 1998 by James Wilson, Ph.D., a naturopath, and expert in alternative medicine. The theory is after your Adrenal Glands become stressed from producing too much cortisol, they eventually are so stressed that they stop making enough of the hormone, which can cause Adrenal Fatigue. When cortisol levels increase, the cells of our body can become resistant to insulin. In turn, this may lead to an increase in blood sugar, weight gain, and potentially Type 2 Diabetes. Either way, unbalanced hormones can result in many health issues.

How Does It Work?

Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland are both located in your brain. Those glands can sense if your blood contains the right level of cortisol. If the level is too low, your brain adjusts the number of hormones it makes. Your adrenal glands pick up on these signals from your brain. Then the Adrenals release more or less of what is needed.

Your cells contain Cortisol Receptors that utilize those hormones differently. For instance, when your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.

Once the danger has passed, your cortisol levels should calm down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems resume normally.

If you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on, this may cause a condition known as Adrenal Fatigue.

It can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including:

  • Moodiness, anxiety, or depression
  • Headaches
  • Insulin resistance
  • Heart disease
  • Brain fog
  • Problems with digestion
  • Insomnia or waking frequently
  • Weight gain or weight loss

Understanding Cortisol Hormone Levels and Stress

Levels of cortisol hormones in the body spike during times of high stress. Steroid hormones are a category of hormones synthesized naturally in the body from cholesterol.

Cortisol levels change throughout the day. They are at their lowest at night. They continue to rise, typically peaking around 9-10 AM, and then continue to decline throughout the day, bringing you back to the lower levels. You will typically see your lowest levels around midnight.

If we are not keeping a typical sleep schedule or sleep a lot during the day, then eventually, adrenal gland disorders can become an issue because you are producing too much or too little cortisol at the wrong time of day.

Cortisol the Stress Hormone and Adrenal Health

Signs and Symptoms of High Cortisol

There are distinctive symptoms that can be directly related to high cortisol levels. When you produce too much cortisol is called Cushing’s Disease.

  • Weight gain – thin arms and legs with weight gain in your stomach, upper back, and face
  • Fatigue
  • Acne or skin changes such as bruising easily or thin skin
  • Thinning Hair
  • Wounds that will not heal
  • Muscle Weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Mood swings, which show as anxiety, depression, or irritability.

Signs and Symptoms of Low Cortisol

Low Cortisol levels, when they become chronic, is called Addison’s Disease.

  • Mood swings, anxiety, depression, or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of body hair
  • Skin discoloration (hyperpigmentation)

Cortisol Hormones plays a role:

  • The flight or fight system in humans.
  • They manage your blood sugar and, if not balanced properly, may cause insulin resistance.
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Regulating your blood pressure.
  • Maintaining your circadian rhythm.
  • Helping you to maintain your energy levels so you can deal with stress better.

Cortisol, Metabolism, and Weight Gain

Cortisol and insulin are closely related to one another in that they both play a role in controlling our blood sugar.   When cortisol levels increase, the cells of our body can become resistant to insulin. In turn, this may lead to an increase in blood sugar, weight gain, and potentially Type 2 Diabetes.

Insulin resistance occurs when the body doesn’t respond well to the insulin that the pancreas is making, and glucose cannot enter the cells. People with insulin resistance may or may not go on to develop type 2 diabetes.

It is important to eat a well-balanced whole foods diet that does not spike your insulin. Foods that are high in simple carbohydrates, like sugar and bread, are refined carbs and only worsen the problem. Staying hydrated and getting enough sleep directly affects your body’s cortisol levels and reduces stress. 

  1. Eat healthier comfort foods.
  2. Practice mindful eating.
  3. Keep a food journal.
  4. Drink more water.

Elevated cortisol levels can stimulate insulin release and increase blood sugar levels, increasing appetite.

Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency

According to EndocrineWeb.com, Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency is caused by pharmaceuticals, particularly in patients taking steroids and in individuals taking opioids for chronic pain conditions or using illicit opioids like fentanyl, heroin, or illegally obtained drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Essentially use of these drugs causes the Adrenals to stop producing the hormones that you need. Signs or symptoms of cortisone deficiency, namely weight loss, myalgia, fatigue, and low blood pressure. However, this condition can be reversed with therapies from an Endocrinologist.

Testing Your Cortisol Levels

Normal results for a blood sample taken at 8 a.m. range between 6 and 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Many laboratories have different measuring techniques, and what’s considered normal may vary.

Cortisol Test  -  Cortisol: The Stress Hormone and What You Need To Know For Adrenal Health

Higher-than-normal cortisol levels may indicate that:

  • your pituitary gland is releasing too much ACTH due to a tumor or excess growth of the pituitary gland
  • you have a tumor in your adrenal gland, resulting in excess cortisol production
  • you have a tumor elsewhere in your body that’s involved in cortisol production

Lower-than-normal cortisol levels may indicate that:

  • you have Addison’s disease, which occurs when the production of cortisol by your adrenal glands is too low
  • you have hypopituitarism, which occurs when the production of cortisol by your adrenal glands is too low because the pituitary gland is not sending proper signals.

Natural Ways To Balance Cortisol Levels  

  • Keep a consistent bedtime routine or schedule. You want to make an effort to go the bed at the same time each night. Avoid electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Electronics and blue light can interfere with your circadian rhythm.
  • Limit alcohol. Alcohol raises cortisol levels and causes bloating in your gut.
  • Avoid caffeine, sugar, and processed food. Look to implement a whole foods diet and get rid of packaged foods with chemicals and high sodium.
  • Moderate Exercise. Excessive exercise without enough rest can increase cortisol. The constant demand for glucose to the muscles can create a form of chronic stress. Gardening, walking, hiking, and moderate strength training will give you the exercise you need without increasing cortisol.
  • Get chiropractic adjustments and massage therapy on your schedule to help reduce stress.
  • Consider getting tested for mineral and vitamin levels. You want to make sure you are not deficient, especially in potassium, magnesium, Vitamin D, and other vitamins and minerals. Nourishing your cells properly can help boost your immune system and help your Adrenals to function properly.
  • Try meditation or prayer to take time out every day. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels.

Supplemental interventions can make a notable difference. Patients also need to change behavior patterns and adapt to daily challenges more easily. Trying the Adrenal Cocktail can help to nourish your adrenal glands and help them stay balanced. You can review several easy ways to make an Adrenal cocktail here. Learn about Adrenal Fatigue, symptoms, and testing. Ashwagandha is another notable supplement that users have reported good results with. Speaking with your Naturopath or Holistic Practitioner will help you carve out a path to relieve cortisol imbalances symptoms.

Wrap Up!

Once you know where you stand you will know better how to get there. With the American Diet and lifestyle causing so much stress in our lives, you will want to understand how to better manage your stress and what supplements can help you to live a longer more balanced life!

See our other articles about your adrenals and how to nourish them!

Adrenal Cocktail Recipe
What Is Adrenal Fatigue, Symptoms, Tests, and Treatments?

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Cortisol the stress hormone

*Statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Always consult a licensed health care professional before starting any supplement or nutraceutical. Especially if you are pregnant or have any pre-existing medical conditions. Individual results may vary.

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Tricia worked in the financial services industry for over 20 years before deciding to divorce the corporate world in 2018. Tricia retired early so she could travel with her husband Jack (the Boomer) and Bo, their German Shepherd. They enjoy finding new experiences together and spending time with their family.

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