Cortisol is commonly referred to as the “stress hormone”, as it is released in response to stressful situations, but is also a normal and healthy part of our hormone system. However, when people experience high stress on a daily basis their cortisol levels become chronically increased and we see negative impacts on their health.
What does a normal cortisol rhythm look like?
Normally cortisol is highest in the morning, which allows us to get up and have energy to start the day. Cortisol gradually declines over the remainder of the day, and is lowest from 12am – 4am. At night, cortisol is inhibited by melatonin, which is the hormone that allows us to get a deep, restful sleep. Bursts of cortisol are also released in response to stressful situations as part of our “fight or flight” response.
How does the cortisol rhythm become abnormal?
The body is programmed to respond to stressors in a “fight or flight” way to ensure our survival. For example, cortisol would be released if we were running from a lion, on the battlefield, or if our baby was sick. Normally, this is a good thing because it gives us the boost of energy we need to overcome the stressful situation and survive.
Unfortunately, the body does not understand the difference between the stress of running from a lion and the stress of a pressing deadline at work. As a result, people who experience high stress for a prolonged period of time have higher than normal cortisol levels. Basically, your body thinks you’re running from a lion all the time.
What happens if I have high cortisol?
Let’s look at what cortisol does in the body if you were running from a lion:
- Redirects circulation to muscles and the heart (run, Forest, run), and away from digestive and detoxification organs
- Proteolysis, or breakdown of muscle (burning muscle for energy)
- Counteracts insulin, causing insulin dysregulation and increased abdominal fat storage (storing energy to run from the next lion)
- Suppresses the immune system (who cares about bacteria when a lion is chasing you?)
- Reduces bone and collagen formation (developing osteoporosis and looking young isn’t as important as getting away!)
- Damages brain cells responsible for learning and retrieval of memories (although short term emotional memories are enhanced to remind you to avoid the lion pit in the future)
- Prevents deep, restful sleep (okay, you don’t need an explanation here)
As you can see, these functions would all be fantastic if our stressors really were short-lived and more physical in nature. However, if you go back and read through this list in the context of being stressed about traffic or work deadlines, you’ll realize that these responses no longer seem appropriate, especially over the long term.
Hints you may have high cortisol
- Prolonged exposure to stressful situations
- Abdominal weight gain, difficulty losing weight
- Reduced muscle mass with increased fat storage
- Premature aging
- Weak immune system, slow wound healing
- Difficulty coping with stress, feeling overwhelmed
- Anxiety, depression
- Low energy, hitting a “wall” at 2-4pm
- Difficulty sleeping or non-restful sleep
- Moor memory, difficulty concentrating
The best way to understand your cortisol rhythm is to have it tested. The Adrenal Stress Index test uses saliva to test cortisol at four points during the day. This allows your Naturopathic Doctor to assess and treat your cortisol accordingly, although sometimes symptoms alone are enough to start treatment.
How is high cortisol treated?
The most important thing to reduce your cortisol is to reduce your stress. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are great tools to cope when you’re feeling stressed, or to achieve better relaxation in your downtime. Learning to say “no”, asking for help, and minimizing stressful situations in your life are also key ways that you can reduce your stress levels.
Many herbs and supplements are used to help to restore a normal cortisol rhythm. Herbs like Ashwaghanda, Holy Basil, Siberian ginseng, Licorice, and Rhodiola can regulate cortisol, and all have slightly different effects in the body. Supplements such as magnesium, B vitamins, GABA, melatonin, and L-theanine can also help to reduce cortisol levels and manage symptoms.
Always speak with your Naturopathic Doctor before taking any supplements or herbs, as they may not be safe or the right choice for you.