Elevated cortisol is hugely significant in disrupting the delicate balance of our Endocrine System.
First, let’s define cortisol. Cortisol is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone, and is released by the adrenal glands in times of high stress and/or emergency. It is actually released in small amounts throughout the day to assist in maintaining our energy levels and circadian rhythms, but for now we’re going to focus on the larger amounts secreted during times of stress.
In Hunter-Gatherer times, the ‘fight or flight’ response was activated when fleeing from a sabre-tooth-tiger or perhaps a swarm of bees. The cortisol is released into the blood steam and gives your body a little injection of nervous energy. Once the danger or stressor is removed, the adrenals will stop pumping out cortisol and the body will return to homeostasis. But what happens when we are in a chronic state of constant stress? Well, the adrenals continue to pump out more cortisol than needed over an extended period of time.
Modern Day Stress.
Even though the apparent danger has been removed, our bodies still read many of the tasks of modern life as stressors, i.e:
- Driving in peak hour;
- Fighting with your spouse;
- Financial worries;
- A busy and demanding career;
- Stressing about a sick child, friend or family member;
High Cortisol = low sex hormones.
With a need for extended elevated cortisol levels, the body stops focusing on the production of the sex hormones. This is called the ‘Pregnenolone steal’; basically the body uses its innate intelligence to determine that there is no time now for ‘rest & repair’ and it needs to continue produces hormones to support the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.
The hormone pathway pushes cholesterol into pregnenolene, then progesterone, and finally cortisol; and can’t make the transition from pregnenolone and progesterone into the important sex hormones like DHEA, estrogen, and testosterone.
When our body is high in cortisol and not producing enough sex hormones, we may experience several unpleasant signs and symptoms:
- Amenorrhea (female – missing period)
- Unwanted facial hair (female)
- Hair loss
- Anxiety/ depression/ mood swings
Chronically high levels of cortisol can also have an impact on the Thyroid. The thyroid plays a role in metabolism and the body’s production of energy (ATP). Under chronic stress, the body may fail to produce adequate amount of the thyroid hormones T3 & T4, or may even fail in converting the inactive T4 into the active T3.
Blood Sugar imbalance.
Chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to Insulin resistance and effect the body’s ability to control blood sugar. This is because when cortisol is high, our body does not effectively read the message from insulin to ‘lower blood sugar’. High blood sugar as we know can lead to several serious health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity (read more in my Blood Sugar post here).
‘Adrenal Fatigue’ or HPA-Dysfunction.
Finally, chronically elevated levels of cortisol can lead to what is known as a cluster of signs and symptoms labelled ‘adrenal fatigue’, burnout, or a more correct term HPA-dysfunction (Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenals – dysfunction). This is when, after a period of ongoing stress and high cortisol, the body simply stops producing enough cortisol – the adrenal glands have given up. Adrenal fatigue shows differently from person to person, but generally comes with:
- Low energy, the feeling of dragging yourself through the day;
- Fatigue that is not relieved by sleep;
- Trouble sleeping;
- Anxiety/ depression;
- Low libido;
- Brain-fog/ poor memory and concentration.
How to manage your cortisol levels.
So, how can you manage your cortisol levels and keep your Endocrine System in check? Reduce stress. Period. Look at all areas of your life, and try to reduce stressors or work on techniques to manage them, i.e:
- Lifestyle – burning the candle at both ends? ‘Sleep when you’re dead’ kind of vibe? Consider dialling back some of your activity and carving in some ‘down time’;
- Sleep – most people need 8 hours, some need more, some can manage on 7, but 4-5 hours will not cut it long term;
- Diet – try reducing common inflammatory items that create stress for the body’s organs, these include: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, processed food, refined grains, and hydrogenated oils;
- Work – try to maintain reasonable hours in a job you don’t hate. Hating your job, or working relentlessly with no time for rest and play will equal high cortisol and unhappy hormones;
- Relationships – Get rid of the people in your life that make you feel bad, nurture the relationships that give you energy and joy;
- Mindfulness – try meditation, yoga, shinrin-yoko (the Japanese tradition of ‘forest-bathing), reading, or anything else that’s let’s you disconnect with the busy world and reconnect to you.
If you think you may be suffering with stress and high cortisol, or are battling extreme and unexplained fatigue, see your healthcare provider for further diagnosis and treatment.