Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress.
Cortisol levels naturally rise and fall throughout the day. They are usually highest in the morning and lowest around midnight, but there are also variations that depend on the person.
It is really important to look at all 4 cortisol markers together and look at the cortisol pattern throughout your day.
If all 4 levels are elevated you might have something called Cushing’s syndrome.
A low level of cortisol may indicate Addison’s disease, a disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient steroid hormones.
- Weight loss
- Low blood pressure
- Abdominal pain
- Dark patches of skin
You may also have hypopituitarism, which occurs when cortisol production by the adrenal glands is low because the pituitary gland is not sending proper signals.
Possible reasons associated with low cortisol throughout the day:
- Addison’s disease (where the adrenal glands are not responding to the ACTH released by the pituitary gland and are not producing enough cortisol) [L]
- Hypothyroidism [L]
- HPA-axis dysfunction
- Head trauma affecting the HPA axis [L]
Cortisol (3PM-5PM) lower:
- Low levels can reflect underlying HPA axis dysfunction.
- Late afternoon cortisol level is below mean range and suggestive of adrenal insufficiency.
This suggests suboptimal adrenal functioning, and if accompanied by low evening cortisol and low DHEA, suspect adrenal fatigue.
Suggest supplementation with DHEA and standard adrenal support.
It is really important to look at all four of these markers together (Waking + Noon + Evening + Night) and look at the cortisol pattern throughout your day.
If all four levels are elevated you might have something called Cushing’s syndrome.
Why is too much cortisol a bad thing?
When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
- Cardiovascular Disease. Cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood. This is advantageous for fight-or-flight situations but not perpetually. Over time, such arterial constriction and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and plaque buildup—the perfect scenario for a heart attack.
- High glucose levels. Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor. However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.
- Weight gain. As your cells are crying out for energy, your body may send signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and thus gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as body fat.
- Suppressed immune system. Cortisol’s positive action to reduce inflammation in the body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. The elevated levels may actually suppress your immune system. You could be more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. Your risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases and you may develop food allergies.
- Digestive problems. When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high-stress level is constant, your digestive tract can’t digest or absorb food well. It’s no coincidence that ulcers occur during stressful times and people with colitis or irritable bowel syndrome report better symptom control when they get their stress under control.
- Fertility problems. Elevated cortisol relating to prolonged stress can lend itself to erectile dysfunction or the disruption of normal ovulation and menstrual cycles. Furthermore, the androgenic sex hormones are produced in the same glands as cortisol and epinephrine, so excess cortisol production may hamper optimal production of these sex hormones.
Potential ways to lower cortisol:
It's really important to first understand what the root cause for elevated cortisol is. Is it stress related? Is it due to a gland issue? depression? medication? Please talk to your health practitioner to get to the root cause and then address that root cause.
If you suspect that stress might be the root cause, be aware of your own stress levels and take steps to manage your stress.
Simple practices such as getting enough sleep, exercising, meditating, deep breathing techniques and a whole foods diet that decreases inflammation are first good steps.
Sleep is critical to the body as important healing and restoration to all cells happens during this time. Those who achieve less than the recommended 6-9 hours each night may experience fatigue, brain fog, lack of motivation, weight gain, trouble concentrating, mood swings, increased illness or inability to properly fight illness, and more.
Treatments are focused on addressing the cause but may also include cortisol calming agents if warranted such as L-theanine, Skullcap, Holy basil, Chamomile, and Magnesium before bed. Avoiding electronics, physical activity, sugar, and alcohol at night may help with sleep.
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