Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones and is primarily made in the adrenal glands. It is often referred to as the body’s “stress hormone” because of its connection to the body’s stress response. However, cortisol does many other things in the body than just help the body cope with stress.
What does Cortisol do?
Because almost all of the body’s cells have cortisol receptors, cortisol can affect numerous different functions in the body. It helps control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, reduce inflammation and aid with memory invention. It also has a huge regulatory effect on salt and water balance as well as helping control blood pressure.
Cortisol and adrenal fatigue are definitely buzzwords these day. Honestly most just think that Cortisol is a bad guy or a bad hormone which is really the farthest from the truth. As you can see below cortisol is actually a vital hormone too our health and without it we would be helpless.
Besides helping the body cope with stress another vital job that Cortisol performs is aiding the body in reducing inflammation. I am sure you have heard of cortisone shots right? Well that’s a synthetic version of cortisol, cortisone/cortisol. The third most important job that cortisol is responsible for is helping the body in controlling its blood sugar levels. Cortisol helps break down protein into glucose (think fuel for the brain and muscles.) through Gluconeogenesis. Just like we have discussed regarding testosterone and estrogens and just about all the other hormones for that matter, it is advantageous to have the body’s cortisol in a healthy range (ie not too high and not too low rather right in the middle).
Our pituitary gland determines how much Cortisol the adrenals should release in order to help us deal with today’s fast-paced world, as many of us are overstressed, over-worked and under-rested.
It is in this state of prolonged pressure that causes cortisol to be created in large amounts or too little of amounts. It is either the overproduction or underproduction of Cortisol that can contribute to a multitude of problems such as: insomnia, excess belly fat, anxiety, and extreme fatigue.
Now Cortisol is not produced solely in response to stress; chronic stress just puts the body into overdrive. Normal levels of Cortisol production are critical for maintaining steady energy throughout the day while its creation and distribution orchestrates the performance of many other hormones, like estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid.
Optimally performing cortisol follows a pattern called the “cortisol curve.” where cortisol is high in the morning and tapers off through the day and evening. However, when the body and mind is chronically overstressed the body releases cortisol at all hours of the day. This results in a cortisol curve that turns into an inverted roller coaster and it is that excessive cortisol production which can lead to a super heightened response to stress and eventually adrenal burnout.
The Cortisol Curve
In an ideal world, cortisol is highest in the morning, first waking us up and then helping us stay focused during the day. It then begins to taper off through the afternoon and ideally the body produces the smallest amount in the evening. However, if your energy levels start to slow down during the day when attempting to complete regular activities then that could be a warning sign that your normal cortisol curve or pattern is upset. A four point saliva test can confirm if this is the problem or not.
Below are some of the most common patterns that a malfunctioning cortisol level tends to follow. Keep in mind they can all overlap, but most often they tend to occur in a progression.
As we stated above, a healthy cortisol curve should begin with cortisol levels highest in the morning, but not hours before dawn. Cortisol levels are normally lowest around 3 a.m. and then begin to rise, peaking around 8 a.m. If you routinely wake up hours before dawn in a state of anxiety, your cortisol could be overachieving and spiking too early.
Cortisol levels can spike throughout the day in response to: stressors at work, deadlines, environmental pollution, not getting enough sleep the night before, too much coffee, a lack of carbs in the diet, or an obsessive personality. If cortisol levels continue to remain elevated you might feel wired and super alert, but your adrenals may be becoming exhausted and will ultimately burnout.
As stated earlier, one of Cortisol’s primary functions is to help regulate blood sugar. It does so by breaking down protein into glucose, through the process of gluconeogenesis in the liver. This type of process is what we call a catabolic reaction (think cannibals eating flesh). Now on the flip-side, DHEA is the body’s anabolic hormone (think muscle building) and it helps build the body’s tissues up. DHEA is the precursor to testosterone and estrogen. Now as you know by now both cortisol and DHEA do other things but that is a simple explanation. On the other hand, another easy way to think of these two hormones working together or against each other is like the Yin Yang balance symbol. The yin is cortisol and DHEA is the yang. One builds up and one breaks down. An ideal cortisol to DHEA ratio is around 5 or 6 to 1.
Balancing your cortisol levels is rarely a quick process. In most cases this will take from 3-12 months, if not longer.
However, continuing to live a life where you have no energy, are moody, and can’t recover from the training you enjoy so much is no way to live.
Remember that as a coach, we need to prioritize the health of our clients. Allowing them to dig a deeper hole of cortisol dysregulation will never be acceptable.
Below are a few strategies that, when implemented, will help re-balance cortisol.
#1 – Sleep
Getting a good night sleep is vital to restoring a healthy cortisol curve, probably the most important thing you can do towards healing the adrenals.
Even going from eight hours of sleep to six hours will cause big disruptions in cortisol patterns in two weeks or less. So even if you are not sleepy, or it is your only time to really catch up on emails and your weekly TV shows, go to bed anyway!
Melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles) also works in tandem with Cortisol just like DHEA. Normally, when cortisol drops, melatonin then takes over and makes you sleepy and ready for bed. When you are asleep, the low production of cortisol allows your cells to repair and heal. Growth hormone is produced in its largest amount when we first fall into REM sleep. However, if cortisol levels stay elevated throughout the night, the body cannot make those vital repairs and you can wake up feeling fatigued and groggy.
Now when your cortisol curve is properly regulated, the body will have the energy it needs to make it through the day and get the rest it deserves.
#2 – Adaptogens
For thousands of years, we have survived without the use or pharmaceuticals. Traditional and holistic Practitioners and Eastern Chinese Medicine have used adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, eleuthero, licorice root, holy basil and many others to help the body cope with the complications of high stress levels. All of the adaptogens listed above have some well-researched data behind them no matter what type of adrenal complications that the body and mind are dealing with and unlike pharmaceuticals, they have very few (if any) side effects.
Adaptogens help the body’s hormone levels adapt. Therefore, if your cortisol levels are high, they help bring them down. If your Cortisol levels are low then they will help raise your levels up. They cannot only help reduce stress levels, but can help restore a person’s cortisol levels back to a healthier curve.
#3 – Relaxation
The body does recognize if stress is mental or physical. Its job is to defend itself when it feels threatened and will crank up the cortisol production each time that it feels stirred up and endangered (at least until the adrenals cannot go on anymore and break down from exhaustion). But when you can calm the body and show it how to relax the sympathetic nervous system recovers a sense of control, reducing the production of cortisol and producing more feel good hormones like endorphins.
However you define relaxation be it The Emotional Freedom Technique, praying, pilates, yoga, exercise, walking on the beach, or catching up with friends. The goal is to find something that calms the mind and is easy to do (something that makes you feel relaxed and centered).
A 2011 study from the University of California, San Francisco, found that overweight and obese women lost fat on their midsections after participating in a mindfulness program for four months. A result that is easy to see because midsection fat has four times as many the cortisol receptors as fat cells located anywhere else in the body.
Relaxation exercises can be advantageous at any time of day and all it takes is a few minutes to ground you and bring those stress levels back to zero. Practicing any type of relaxation technique can be especially helpful at night time before bed to help support a great night’s sleep.
#4 – Exercise and Cortisol
Intensive exercise is recognized by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol. However, for the healthy and not the metabolically adapted the higher your fitness level improves the better the body can cope with physical stress. So as the body experiences more emotional or psychological stresses it means that a lower amount of cortisol gets released in all situations, including exercise.
However, research does clearly show that the time of day that you exercise and the intensity of exercise can have a negative impact on the level of cortisol produced. So the old adage of one more rep or more and more exercise may not be better. Even basic training for durations longer than an hour at low intensities will burn through the body’s glycogen stores and signal a cortisol release. Numerous studies confirm that long-term cortisol exposure was significantly higher in endurance athletes.
HITT training, sprints or short break weight training sessions can cause a dramatic increase in blood cortisol levels. This type of training can be even more damaging to the person with high or low cortisol levels if they exercise when starved or nutritionally depleted and can be again worsened by working out in the early morning when the body’s cortisol levels are naturally at their highest.
So How Can You Fix This?
- Just don’t overdo it. Take regular breaks and don’t push yourself too hard. Now too hard is very subjective but only you know what is an 80% effort and a 100% effort. Listen to your body and if you feel run down just take a break.
- Remove intense exercise sessions if need be or if you cannot then do them later in the day, when cortisol levels are lower.
- Fuel your body properly and get in carbohydrates and protein after exercise to decrease the cortisol response and help the body recover.
#5 – Stimulants
Stimulants may produce several different effects, depending on the quantity that a person consumes on a daily basis. For those who are used to consuming high levels of stimulants such as energy drinks, multiple cups of coffee, pre-workouts, and fat burners they may find that they become jittery and have trouble sleeping. Caffeine can negatively affect more than the levels of cortisol as it can also have a negative impact on the hormones adrenaline, adenosine, and dopamine. Most stimulants, especially caffeine, provides an increase adrenaline but at the same time restrains the hormone adenosine from calming you down. After about 8 hours or so, when the stimulants effects wear off you can feel crashed and tired
A life without stimulants (including caffeine) will definitely decrease the levels of cortisol in your body and contribute to a healthier lifestyle. It is obvious that higher prolonged levels of cortisol are not great for the mind and body, so by removing stimulants when possible will only help your body heal and begin to regulate its cortisol curve. However, if you are someone that needs caffeine to survive and are not in a state of adrenal dysfunction, just consume caffeine in moderation. Try to get it in before 9AM and never after 2PM if you are someone that does not regularly get a restful night’s sleep.
#6 – Carb Intake
Low carb diets can support a healthy weight loss plan, but it is not really ideal for those fighting low or high cortisol levels.
Higher-carb meals help drop cortisol levels in the body, and lower-carb meals allow the cortisol to stay active and at higher levels in the body. This occurs due to the fact that carbohydrates produce a rise in blood sugar, resulting in an increase in insulin production. Insulin is a storage hormone that either directs blood sugar into the muscle cells or the fat cells. The production of insulin will result in a decrease cortisol production. So think – as the body’s blood sugar level rises its cortisol production get shoved down.
Take this study as an example: a clinical trial in 2014, subjects with cortisol dysregulation were able to correct and rebalance their curves by consuming breakfasts that were low in carbs, consuming a moderate amount of healthy carbs midday, and a higher amount of healthy carbs in the evening. Healthy carbs being more low glycemic fruits and vegetables and not cookies and pasta.
When a person’s carb consumption is too low, the body raises its own cortisol levels because its muscle tissues are being broken down. The body does so with the intention of getting the glucose out of them so the body can regulate its blood sugar levels (which then elevate the cortisol production even more). This results in having elevated cortisol levels in the evening (the last thing you want when you should be getting ready for bed).