It seems like everyone is talking about cortisol these days – and it’s about time! As we continue to discover how much stress impacts our health – and our lives – it’s important to talk about.
In my practice, I’ve talked with women about how stress impacts hormones (especially cortisol) and how that can create myriad uncomfortable symptoms. For decades, conventional medicine has handled the health effects of stress with medication or vague advice. But medication simply masks symptoms, and advice like “try to relax more” doesn’t give women the specific strategies they are seeking.
Cortisol levels can give us a big clue as to what’s behind symptoms like fatigue, anxiety and depression, chronic pain and weight gain. That’s why I always like to measure and track levels over time to see if cortisol is chronically high.
What exactly IS cortisol?
Okay, so you’ve been hearing the word cortisol more frequently in the media, advertising, and from friends and health care professionals (particularly if they are functional medicine providers or other alternative health care). But do you know what it actually is and what it does?
Cortisol is a stress hormone. It’s primary function is to help us meet life’s challenges by converting proteins into energy, releasing glycogen and counteracting inflammation.
That’s all great in the short term. Our bodies NEED cortisol to rise when under attack to help us survive. But in a typical stress cycle generations ago, cortisol would rise during the emergency but recede to normal levels when the threat was gone. In our modern world with all of it’s distractions, trauma and toxins, stress is a constant.
And your body perceives all stress — physical, emotional, even good stress — as a threat, so cortisol increases. This keeps levels high for sustained periods of time, which gradually creates major wear and tear on your body. So although it’s true that cortisol is an essential hormone that we can’t live without, too much of a good thing is not healthy.
Physical effects of sustained high cortisol
High cortisol levels can create extreme physical symptoms if left unchecked. Not only does high cortisol destroy healthy muscle and bone, it also slows healing and natural cell regeneration. When levels of cortisol stay high, it also co-opts biochemicals necessary for the production of other vital hormones, sometimes resulting in serious hormonal imbalances.
Additionally, high cortisol levels can lead to impaired digestion, metabolism, endocrine function and immune function. That’s a lot of impact for one hormone to have! That’s why it’s so important to physical health to keep cortisol levels under control. Utter exhaustion makes physical function difficult at best, impossible at worst!
Emotional effects of high cortisol
As if the physical impacts aren’t bad enough, high cortisol also has a serious effect on mood. After all, if you can’t function properly, how likely are you to feel great emotionally? Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and mood swings. And sadly, when your cortisol levels are high, you are less likely to want (or be able to) do the things that might make you feel better emotionally.
If you know that cortisol is behind your changes in mood, you will also know that there are specific things you can do about it. And I don’t mean medication! Prescriptions are never my first course of action. So often, I give women the tips they need to take small steps towards better emotional health and they realize they can recapture their joy without a daily pill and all of the side effects that can come with it.
The Cortisol-Adrenal Fatigue Connection
The symptoms of high cortisol, whether physical or mental, are all a part of adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue has several distinct stages, but it all begins with cortisol.
As I said before, the natural stress response produces cortisol. And this is a good thing. Responding properly to stress actually helps keep us healthy. So the first stage is not a problem – unless that natural response is triggered far too often and for far too long.
When you have persistent stressors – work, home life, relationship issues, even just the constant barrage of environmental stressors – cortisol production continues. But here’s the catch: with that cortisol production, other hormones drop. You may begin feeling “tired but wired.” That’s a signal that shouldn’t be ignored!
If it is, your body begins to consider chronic stress the norm – and many of your systems will be taking a big hit as a result. Your adrenal glands are working overtime to protect you, and as they do, other systems are put on hold. Reproduction and digestion just aren’t as important if there’s a wild animal attack. Of course, there typically isn’t a wild animal chasing you. But, biologically speaking, your body doesn’t know that.
Eventually, your body gets tired of “running.” Your adrenals simply can’t keep up with the cortisol demand. While production won’t cease entirely, it slows way down. This is the point at which life becomes fairly unmanageable. Extreme exhaustion, brain fog, low sex drive, and major mood difficulties are symptoms of this late stage of adrenal fatige.
And as if adrenal fatigue alone isn’t bad enough, many other conditions such as fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, arthritis and hormonal issues are often exacerbated by high cortisol.
As hard as that all is, the good news is that you don’t have to get to that point! In my practice, I have tested thousands of women’s cortisol levels and the results make one thing crystal clear: We MUST keep talking about it. Nearly 75% of all women I’ve tested have had cortisol levels that indicate some level – whether mild or severe – of adrenal dysfunction.
When caught early, high cortisol levels are relatively simple to correct. If the problem has persisted, it may take longer, more aggressive strategies to heal. Below are three simple ways to manage your cortisol levels naturally.
3 ways to reduce cortisol
1. Eat for better balance
I know you’ve heard the advice to “eat healthy” over and over again. But has anyone told you what that actually means? Here are some quick tips:
- Ditch processed foods and sugar for natural, organic fruits, vegetables and meat.
- Space your meals out at regular intervals to keep insulin and glucose levels stable.
- Reduce consumption of white flour, sugar, and refined carbs.
- Choose whole grains instead.
- Be aware of how certain foods – especially dairy and gluten – impact how you feel. Many women have unknown sensitivities to common allergens, even if a full blown allergy isn’t present.
2. Choose high quality supplements to support your adrenals
We’d all like to get all the nutrients we need from food, but it’s just not realistic in our modern world, particularly if we’re depending on convenience foods to get us through. Even if you’re eating organic vegetables often, depleted soil means they’re far less rich in nutrients than they used to be! I recommend the following for adrenal support:
- A high quality multivitamin/mineral complex like my Multi Essentials
- An essential fatty acid supplement, such as my EPA/DHA Support
- An adrenal specific program, depending on the stage and symptoms of your adrenal issues.
3. Reduce stress
I know — there’s that vague advice I was talking about earlier. But I’m not going to leave it at that! Here are some specific ways to slow down and address the stressors you encounter every day:
- Prioritize self-care. That means really taking the time to think about what YOU want and need. A massage is great, but that alone won’t do it. I’m talking about saying no to things you don’t want to do, building time into your schedule for the things you DO want to do, and realizing that you matter just as much as anyone else.
- Make a list of stressors that you are currently dealing with. Can you make small changes to any of them? For instance, if morning fights with your teenager are leaving you exhausted, buy them an alarm clock and let them know they need to manage their own mornings.
- Sleep! Sleep is when your body can rejuvenate, but only if you give it ample time to do so. Make a sleep schedule – and stick to it!
- Address emotional stress. Ignoring previous trauma and hurt from childhood means your body is still hanging on to that stress. Talk to a counselor or trusted friend, find a support group, or try techniques like EFT (tapping) to release old emotional baggage.
- Laugh daily. Laughter really IS great medicine. And if you’re laughing, you’re likely doing something you love – which is also important in calming the stress response.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Reflecting on the things you are grateful for is a great way to calm your mind.
- Mediate, breathe deeply, and try yoga, gentle stretching, or walking. Vigorous exercise isn’t a great idea when your adrenals are already under attack, but keeping yourself moving is important. Walking in the sun is even better, since you’ll boost your Vitamin D at the same time!
You CAN control your cortisol levels
Talking about cortisol is an important first step, but to truly feel better, you have to take action! Trying the above suggestions can help you feel more energetic, which in turn improves mood and can give you a whole new outlook! There’s no need to suffer in silence any longer. You have the power – and now the information – you need to live your best life!
For more specific information on how cortisol and adrenal health impact overall health, read more in the Adrenal Health section of my Health Library
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD