Cortisol And Its Role In Adrenal Fatigue
If you have adrenal fatigue it pays to get up close and personal with cortisol to understand what is happening with your system and the role it plays in adrenal fatigue syndrome.
Cortisol is a hormone commonly known as the “stress hormone“. It is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands which are located on the top of each kidney. Inside your brain is your pituitary gland that regulates how much cortisol your adrenal glands release. Both these glands are part of what is known as the HPA Axis.
Cortisol is vital for regulating your body’s anti-inflammatory processes, blood pressure, the immune function and assists your memory in its function. It helps to balance your hormones for good health.
What Else Does Cortisol Do?
Cortisol creates the energy you need for your body to function. It helps to reduce inflammation, creates high energy levels to respond to stress, and regulates your metabolism and blood sugar levels. Cortisol also controls the water and salt balance in your system, and assists in controlling blood pressure levels. It is a crucial hormone for good health and well-being, and assists the development of the fetus when you are pregnant.
How Is It Produced?
The cortisol in your adrenal glands releases when you exercise, as a response to stress and to wake you up in the morning. It also plays an important role in your nutrition by choosing the right amount and type of protein, carbohydrates or fat you need during the day to meet your demands for energy.
Cortisol is also released when you experience stress and helps to create the fight or flight response and increases energy production temporarily to meet this demand. It creates this temporary surge in energy so you can respond to the stress.
This causes a temporary biochemical and hormonal imbalance as it inhibits other processes such as insulin production not needed immediately. This imbalance should resolve itself once you no longer feel stressed.
The problem is, many of us live a fast-paced life and are constantly triggering cortisol production. The following is a breakdown of what occurs in your body when you are under stress or feel fearful or anxious:
- Rush Of Hormones – A rush of hormones reacts to the stress and adrenal glands release cortisol to create the energy you need to resolve the stressful situation.
- Fight Or Flight – Cortisol prepares your body to respond to fight or flight by supplying instant energy to your large muscles using increased amounts of glucose.
- Insulin Reduction – This stops the production of insulin so the glucose in your system is available for immediate use and is not stored.
- Heart Rate Increase – It narrows the arteries and epinephrine increases your heart rate. Together they both pump blood faster through your system.
- You Meet The Stress – You face the situation causing the stress to resolve it.
- When The Stress Is Over – Your hormone levels drop to normal levels once the stress is relieved.
When you are always stressed out, as many of us are in keeping up a fast paced lifestyle, you are constantly producing cortisol which is not good for your health and causes physical damage.
Cortisol’s Effect On Your Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands have an important function. They produce the hormones that burn fat and protein, control blood sugar levels, and react to the stress or fear you feel.
The most important hormones produced by the adrenal glands are aldosterone and cortisol. When you have an adrenal disorder, the glands can produce too little or too much of a particular hormone. For example, adrenal fatigue is a disorder which alternative medical practitioners believe occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol and other hormones.
This happens as a result of your adrenals constantly being pushed to produce cortisol due to being under unrelenting stress. Over time, your adrenals become fatigued and are no longer able to produce hormones in the needed quantities.
Symptoms of low cortisol can include:
- Salt cravings
- Disturbed sleep
- Low blood pressure
- Body aches and pains
- Digestive problems.
Symptoms Of Too Much Cortisol
When you have high levels of cortisol over long periods of time it can lead to disorders such as Cushing’s syndrome and cause a change in a woman’s libido. It can also cause irregular periods or they can stop altogether as well as causing depression and anxiety.
In the short term when you are under stress which is affecting your adrenals, hormones become dysregulated and you can experience times when cortisol is too high. Symptoms of high cortisol levels vary and can include:
- Bruising easily
- Facial flushing
- Gaining weight around the face
- Gaining weight around the upper back and midsection
- Difficulties concentrating
- Thinning skin
- High blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Slow to heal
- Always thirsty and urinating often
- Severe fatigue
- Mood swings, irritability, anxiety and depression.
Reasons For Too Little Cortisol
When you have constantly low cortisol levels you may have primary adrenal insufficiency also know as Addison’s disease. This a rare autoimmune condition that damages the adrenal gland. However, other reasons for low cortisol levels include:
- The adrenal glands are exhausted and cannot produce enough cortisol.
- Removal or failure of the adrenal glands.
- The addition of other steroids in the body.
- The inability of the pituitary gland to produce the chemicals required that let the adrenal glands know it is time to produce cortisol.
Symptoms of low cortisol levels due to adrenal fatigue are usually slow to appear and include:
- Extreme muscle weakness
- Areas of the skin becoming darker
- Fatigue particularly in the middle of the afternoon
- Experiencing mental confusion
- Weight loss
- Falling hair
- Lightheaded when you stand up
- An elevated heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Low blood pressure
How Stress Affects Cortisol Levels
When you feel stressed or fearful your cortisol levels rise but normally go back to a regular level when the stress resolves. Cortisol mobilizes your body ready for action. But there needs to be a release such as a fight or flight response. If this does not occur, cortisol levels build up and cause physical and mental problems.
When you constantly worry and have chronic stress, you produce too much cortisol. This increases the risk of triggering a mental illness such a depression and lowers your resilience levels.
There are two types of stress; distress which is the bad type of stress and eustress which is good stress. Both types of stress cause cortisol to release into your bloodstream:
- Distress. Distress is a sedentary type of anxiety that continues when you constantly worry about things in your life. This type of distress does not allow stress levels to go back to normal as the stress may not be relieved so cortisol levels remain high.
- Eustress. Eustress is when you have a surge of tension in response to a specific situation. Once you deal with that situation your cortisol levels return to normal.
Using Saliva Test For Accurate Cortisol Levels
If you feel you need to carry out some testing to find out what is happening with your adrenal function the saliva test is the preferred method of testing for adrenal fatigue. It is a non-invasive test that gives reliable results of your cortisol levels. But it is important you have your natural practitioner interpret the results for you.
Varying factors such a whether you are pregnant, smoking, medications, caffeine and alcohol, medical conditions, menstrual cycle, age, gender and number of calories consumed need to be put into context to get a correct result as these can alter hormone levels.
Saliva tests are available online and you will take four saliva samples at specific times during the day. This lets you know not only if your cortisol levels are too high or low overall. But, it also shows if cortisol production is out of synch with it’s natural daily rhythms.
For example, spiking at times of the day when it should be low, or too low at times when it should be higher. Once you have the samples, send these to the lab for analysis.
How To Keep Cortisol Levels Stable
Once your lab results are back and adrenal fatigue is confirmed it is advisable to start working on your stress levels as the first step to healing.
You are probably having trouble controlling the stress in your life. Chronic stress has negative effects on your body. Ongoing persistent surges of epinephrine will damage arteries and blood vessels which raises your blood pressure.
High cortisol levels give you the energy to help you respond to stress and fear situations. Once the stress passes cortisol should return to normal levels. At the same time cortisol can contribute to weight gain and fatty tissue building up in your system.
People with adrenal fatigue syndrome will recognize the typical muffin top that appears around your midsection. This is your body’s way of laying down fat to protect your important internal organs as your system thinks it is under constant threat due to stress.
Additionally, cortisol can increase your appetite so you eat more for extra energy and it stores the nutrients your body does not need as fat.
The good news is that there are a few simple things you can do to reduce stress and keep your cortisol levels balanced.
Top 10 simple things you can to do to reduce your stress levels and keep cortisol balanced. The good news is you can start using some of them straight away.
#1. Identify Where Your Stress Is Coming From
Look for what is causing the most stress in your life and work on changing it. Stress comes from many different areas of your life. Toxic relationships, staying in a job you hate, working too hard/long hours etc., financial worries, an ongoing infection that has not been adequately resolved, poor diet etc.
#2. Learn To Relax To Decrease Stress Levels
Learn to relax to lower cortisol levels. You can do this by removing yourself from situations and relationships that cause stress and also learn how to better cope with stress. Learn what triggers stress in you and either avoid it or manage the situation effectively so you are not in a constant state of worry and anxiety.
Experiment with relaxation techniques to find what works best for you. Try meditation, restorative yoga, practicing gratitude and simple breathing exercises.
Try downloading one of the many available meditation apps to your phone.The Breethe app has a variety of guided meditations, some as short as 5 minutes, just enough to get you to stop and remove yourself from a stressful situation and destress.
Guided meditations such as these help your adrenals to stop pumping out cortisol and importantly aid in managing your stress levels. I found it very beneficial to include a meditation practice into each day to help me de-stress when I had adrenal fatigue syndrome.
Even twenty minutes a day while you sit on the bus or train from work each day will help you arrive home less stressed and ready to enjoy your free time.
#3. Start A Hobby
Start a new hobby you enjoy. Even make time for the hobbies you already have. Enjoying a hobby is relaxing and contributes to your sense of fulfillment and wellbeing. It reduces the tension in your body, distracts you from everyday worries, improves your quality of life and gives you a sense of achievement. When you are concentrating and focused on an enjoyable hobby your mind switches off and you are in the ‘zone’.
#4. Get Physical
When you get physical it releases the tension in your body caused by stress. It can be as simple as taking a quick walk outside in nature. Gentle exercising diverts your attention from what worries you, relieves muscle tension and helps you to breathe deeply. Other fantastic types of exercises include yoga, qi gong and tai chi which help you to breathe deeply and focus your thoughts. This helps you to relax.
#5 Get Social
When you have a good social support network of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family it enhances your life. Strong social support and stable, loving relationships help you to cope with stress and times of crisis. Cultivate the people you trust in your life and turn to them for support when you need it. Ditch any energy sappers, make sure you are only socializing with people who don’t drain you.
Research shows that children living in happy homes have lower cortisol levels than children that have home lives with regular conflict.
#6. Eat Well
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with low sugar intake can help to stabilise cortisol levels. Specific foods that can help include:
- Pears and bananas – although you may need to be careful with fruit if you have adrenal fatigue syndrome.
- Drinking plenty of filtered water
- Probiotics in foods such as yogurt
#7. Laugh And Have Fun
Having fun and laughing lowers cortisol levels as it lowers your stress levels. Research shows that laughing and a good sense of humor makes your stress disappear. It is important to find different ways to bring fun into your life every day for better health and well-being.
#8. Listen To Music
Listening to your favorite music relaxes you and helps to lower cortisol levels. We already know that music lowers stress levels and can improve your mood. Now you have another reason to continue playing your music. It improves your health and happiness.
#9. Get A Pet
The unconditional love of a pet can help lower cortisol levels. Hardly surprising really when all they want is love and lots of pats. It helps you relax. One study showed that petting a dog can lower cortisol levels more than talking to someone in your support network when feeling stressed.
#10. Get A Good Night’s Sleep
How much sleep you get can affect your cortisol levels. Not getting enough sleep can raise the cortisol in your system. So, it is a good idea to have a regular routine of going to bed by 10 pm each night to ensure you have uninterrupted sleep. Waking regularly around 3am can be a symptom of adrenal fatigue as dysregulated cortisol spikes when it should be low.
To get a better night’s sleep avoid caffeine completely and reduce food intake before going to bed. Also try switching off the television and computer a couple of hours before turning in and just relax so you are ready to sleep. Turn your phone off before going to bed and leave it in another room so it does not disturb you if it rings or someone sends a text.
There are some great sleep aids for adrenal fatigue syndrome that can help you prepare for sleep and assist you in staying asleep the whole night through. When you have adrenal fatigue it is SO important to sleep well to help restore healthy adrenal function.
More Help For Your Adrenals – Using The Most Powerful Adaptogenic Herbs
At the same time as working to identify and reduce the stress in your life it can be very beneficial to provide your adrenals with additional support by taking some nutritional supplements and adaptogenic herbs.
Adaptogenic herbs help by regulating your body’s response to stress.
- Do adaptogens lower cortisol if it is too high? The answer is yes.
- Can adaptogens raise cortisol if it is too low? The answer is yes……again.
The clue is in the description of these useful herbs, they help your system ‘adapt’ to precisely what it needs.
Some of the most powerful adaptogenics include:
One of the most well known herbs for adrenal fatigue, and grown throughout Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe. Licorice is known for its ability to increase energy and is known to naturally bolster cortisone when levels are low due to adrenal fatigue.
The way licorice root works is that it prevents your body using up stores of cortisol by reducing conversion of inactive cortisol in the kidneys. This then increases the availability of cortisol in the body which helps to increase resistance to stress.
Another very well known adaptogenic herbs is Ashwagandha. It originally comes from North Africa and India and has been used in traditional chinese and ayurvedic medicine for centuries.
This powerful adaptogenic herb works on both the hormone and nervous systems and is known for its nourishing and tonic qualities. Ashwagandha is helpful in supporting your system adapt to stressful situations as it helps lower cortisol levels.
Ashwagandha’s botanical name is withania somnifera. It is the high levels of withanolides in the herb that provide the health benefits of this herb. A study shows withanolides are also useful in fighting inflammation and the growth of tumors.
Known for its ability to moderate the effects of stress and fatigue and commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this study also shows astragalus has the ability to regulate the body’s immune response.
This medicinal root may temporarily increase cortisol levels which allows your body to respond to certain types of stress. However, as soon as the stress is dealt with the cortisol then levels back out.
Although it is also called Siberian Ginseng, it is not a true ginseng. The active ingredients of this plant are called eleutherosides. However, it is an adaptogen traditionally used to stimulate the immune system and increase energy. But, the main benefits of this herb is its ability to increase resistance to stress.
Panax ginseng is known as Asian ginseng and also called Korean ginseng. And is considered an adaptogenic herb. A study shows that ginseng improves the stress response by its ability to regulate the HPA axis.
Ginger root is used to help reduce cortisol levels while increasing energy and is well known as an adaptogen for the adrenals. It is also used as a digestive aid and helps to calm the central nervous system.
You can learn more about a quality adrenal fatigue supplement combining adaptogens in a comprehensive formula here.
Putting It All Together
It is important to keep your stress under control to regulate the cortisol level in your system. Too much or too little cortisol can cause health problems.
If you have adrenal fatigue, you need to make lifestyle changes to help manage your stress levels. Use some of the techniques mentioned here, try introducing them one by one to see which work best for you.
Use a good quality adaptogenic supplement to help regulate your cortisol levels. Also consider vitamins which are needed in high doses when you have adrenal fatigue, including Vitamin C and Vitamin B5.
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