What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is the “master” of all hormones and adequate cortisol function allows our bodies to respond to various stressors. Stress is an inevitable part of life, but when stress becomes out of proportion, it takes a toll on overall health. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of medically-related issues are linked to stress. Elevated cortisol interferes with the function of other essential hormones, and can result in insulin and thyroid resistance, estrogen imbalance, progesterone deficiencies, and even testosterone fluctuations. While cortisol is a vital hormone of the body, optimal levels are required to achieve health.
- Hormone made by adrenals and increases with age
- Balances blood sugar
- Activates immune system response
- Involved in bone turnover rate
- Contributes to mood and thought
- Determines sleep
- Influences activity of thyroid, insulin, DHEA, testosterone and estrogen
What happens when Cortisol is too low?
- Low blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Emotional imbalances/lack of motivation
- Loss of libido (sex drive)
- Decreased immunity
- Unresponsive hypothyroidism (does not respond to treatment)
- Feeling of being “overwhelmed”
What happens when Cortisol is too high?
- Immune suppression
- Increases osteoporosis risk
- Irritability and anxiety
- Night sweats
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated choleserol
- Insulin resistance and sugar cravings
- Decreased thyroid hormone function
- Accelerated aging
- Hormone imbalance
What Causes Stress
- Skipping meals
- high-glycemic food intake
- Junk food diets
- Alcohol consumption
- Fasting too long between meals
- Higher intake of simple carbohydrates vs. protein
- Tissue damage/surgery
- Bowel issues
- Celiac Sprue
- Environmental toxicity exposure
- Racing thoughts
- High nighttime cortisol
- Low bedtime melatonin
- Low prosterone
- Inconsistent sleep schedule
- Lack of sleep
- Irregular work hours
- Death of a family member
- Birth of a chid
- Major personal history of illness
- Job/financial worries
Blood Sugar Metabolism
In order to fully meet our body’s demands, we must maintain sufficient blood sugars to thrive optimally. When we skip meals or fast too long between meals, our blood glucose drops and our body sustains our energy needs by elevating cortisol. Increased cortisol levels effectively raise blood sugar, but cause excessive workload on our adrenal glands eventually leading to adrenal fatigue. Excessive cortisol is also linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Take Control of your Diet
- Eat protein with each meal (especially breakfast)
- Increase dietary fiber
- Reduce intake of processed/refinedf carbs and sugars
- Limit caffeine, alcohol, fried foods, and sweets
- Take an efficacious multivitamin
Need Help Getting Started?
Let us help you learn how to eat for health. Schedule an appointment with one of our Wellness Coaches, and learn more about our Wellness Coaching program.
Insomnia (Lack of Sleep)
Are you still exhausted in the morning? Is it difficult for you to fall asleep, even when you feel tired? Are you constantly thinking about tomorrow’s tasks while trying to sleep? Is your bedtime different every night? These may be indicators of sleep disruption, which ultimately increases cortisol/stress within the body.
Sleep is your body’s way of resetting itself metabolically and psychologically. Sleep also helps your body re-adjust to daytime stressors. Sleep deprivation creates a tremendous level of stress on the body, and does not allow our bodies to naturally reset itself at night. Our cortisol function determines our sleep patterns. If cortisol is excessively elevated at bedtime, this prevents us from being able to maintain quality sleep. Our natural cortisol diurnal rhythm should be highest in the morning, which helps get us out of bed in the morning. Cortisol gradually declines throughout the day and should be the lowest at night, preparing our bodies for sleep. If any disruption to this pattern occurs, this may trigger insomnia. Sleeping pills, like Ambien™, never allow for quality REM cycle sleep and are very addictive. These should be avoided in the long-term and may require weaning off slowly. We recommend using natural sleep supplements, like melatonin and natural ZZZ’s, which are much safer and have fewer side effects. Restoring hormone balance is the most effective therapy for attaining natural sleep patterns in the long-term.
Take Control of your Sleep
- Address any medical reasons that wake you at night (hormone imbalance, insulin resistance, cortisol issues)
- Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule
- Get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night
- Reduce noise and distractions during the hour before bedtime
- Consider using a natural sleep aid in the short term
Natural Sleep Supplements
- Natural ZZZ’s™ – This is a combination product of L-theanine, Jujube seed, passion flower, and valerian to be used one hour (2 capsules) before sleep. It has a natural calming effect that will reduce stress/anxiety, promote muscle relaxation, and will allow you to achieve restful sleep.
- Melatonin – Melatonin is an important hormone in regulating sleep, circadian rhythm and the body’s natural time clock. The amount of melatonin produced by our bodies seems to decrease with age, which can be corrected through natural supplementation.
- Magnesium Glycinate – One of the most powerful relaxation minerals available and can help improve your sleep.
- Phosphatidyl Serine – Phosphatidyl serine (PS) is a nutrient essential for optimal brain function. It is also a natural remedy for insomnia that can be taken four hours prior to sleep.
It is impossible to avoid this kind of stress throughout life. We all have this type of stress but may differ in how we respond to it. Whether it is financial pressure, change in jobs, loss of a family member, traumatic memories, or relationship issues, it is crucial to deal with mental/emotional stressors. Otherwise, this can take a toll on our overall health and well-being. Seeking counselors to help cope with major life stressors is often helpful in resolving this area of conflict. Conventionally, most practitioners will give anti-depressants to help people overcome life stressors. The down side of this type of therapy includes weight gain, loss of libido, among other side effects.
Testing Your Stress Levels by Measuring Cortisol
Salivary testing is the only way to accurately measure cortisol levels. Samples are collected four times throughout a “normal” day; once upon rising, once in mid- to late-morning, once in the afternoon, and once before bedtime. The lab will evaluate total levels of cortisol and compare it to the proper diurnal rhythm (see sample chart below).
How to Test Yourself
Testing your cortisol levels can easily be done with saliva kits. This is not covered by insurance.
ZRT Hormones (Estradiol, estriol, progesterone, testosterone)
The Progesterone/Pregnenolone Steal Effect
Our natural progesterone is not only an essential female hormone but also is a precursor in making cortisol. Chronic stress drives pregnenolone/progesterone into conversion to cortisol. When the progesterone precursors are stolen into making primarily cortisol, there are less hormone precursors available for synthesizing of other important hormones, like DHEA. DHEA is our natural anti-aging hormone of the body that promotes adequate recovery and repair of the body. When DHEA levels drop, the aging process is accelerated. Lastly, women with elevated cortisol do not experience full benefit of natural progesterone therapy. Ultimately, when cortisol levels are balanced, there is less need for all of our other hormones.
- When cortisol is elevated, it decreases the making of progesterone and its activity
- Cortisol competes with progesterone for common receptors
For more information and resources on Cortisol, please refer to our Recommended Reading: Adrenal Fatigue by Dr. James Wilson
Cortisol is not only our natural hormone that is produced in response to stress, but it is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Essentially, cortisol is secreted whenever inflammation is present in the body. If there is unresolved inflammation, this creates excess demand for cortisol and causes havoc to hormone balance. Identifying underlying sources of inflammation helps alleviate excessive cortisol release and overall stress demand on the body. Sources of undiagnosed inflammation often include irritable bowel syndrome, food sensitivities, arthritis, allergies, obesity, or other gastrointestinal issues.
- Allergy testing to diagnose specific food allergies
- Stool testing to rule out intestinal pathogens
- Increased daily intake of omega-3 fish oils through diet and supplementation
- Fish (salmon, sardines, mackarel)
- Fish oil supplement
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts and seeds