Your body has a mechanism we know as “the fight or flight” instinct. You’ve felt it. When a situation becomes alarming, your body readies for action and your focus turns solely to coping with the threat, shutting out everything else. You react quickly; run or fight, take action or get to safety. Time seems to slow down, your brain quiets, and instinct takes over.
That powerful instinct is largely driven by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands, is also known as “the stress hormone” because it is released in high doses when you encounter a stressful situation and helps to regulate your reaction to that situation. However, cortisol doesn’t only affect your immediate response to acute stress. Rather, it plays a critical role in overall wellbeing.
Many people are aware that chronically elevated cortisol can have significant health consequences. But having cortisol levels that are too low can be just as bad, potentially impacting your mood, cognitive abilities, energy levels, and appetite. In some cases, it may even lead to serious health issues.
So how do you know if your cortisol levels are low? You need to understand the symptoms. You need to get tested. And you may need to take steps to get back into balance. By recognizing when things are out of balance, you can help make sure that cortisol fights for you.
What Does Cortisol Do?
There are a lot of things that help during stress: yoga, therapy, meditation, going to your quiet place. These things can help you release nervous energy, process your feelings, and quiet your mind. But cortisol is different: when stress happens and cortisol is released, it actually causes your body to shut down some other processes that are pretty important.
In times of acute stress, cortisol diverts the energy your body is normally using to crave food, digest your meal, regulate your mood, run your reproductive processes, and everything else that is normally happening either in the background or foreground at all times. By diverting energy away from these processes, your brain’s ability to focus intensely on the problem at hand (evolutionarily speaking, a saber-tooth tiger or something equally fearsome) is enhanced. This is a powerful phenomenon that has been critical for human survival for thousands of years. It can, at times, mean the difference between life and death.
It’s normal for cortisol to temporarily spike in response to stressful events, such as a car accident. Unfortunately many people live with chronic stress. This means that your body is constantly living at 75-80% of the stress you would have at the time of a car accident. As a result, your body produces high levels of cortisol on a continuous basis. This is not a normal state. Cortisol affects many systems in the body including regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, inflammation, how your body handles fat and carbs, and your energy levels. All of these body systems can be negatively affected when your cortisol is activated on an ongoing basis.
Understanding the impact of cortisol and the way it works in our bodies gives us a good idea of why balance is important. After all, your body was designed to have specific hormone levels and any changes to those levels can disrupt the way your body functions. This is why low cortisol can be a real danger; it prevents you from realizing optimal health. Worse, it can cause serious symptoms that cause significant physical and emotional distress.
Symptoms: How to Know if Your Cortisol Levels are Low
There are many causes of low cortisol, including genetic, epigenetic, disease-based, or a combination of all of the above. No matter what the cause, the symptoms are similar, and can range from inconvenient to life-threatening.
Symptoms of low cortisol include:
- Constant fatigue that grows worse over time
- Dizziness and lack of balance
- Muscle weakness
- Digestive issues
- Loss of appetite
- Unregulated weight loss
- Mood changes
- Skin discoloration
The problem is that many of these can initially seem normal. It’s normal to be tired or have sleep problems sometimes—or even often—depending on your lifestyle. Everyone is moody at times. You may assume your decreased strength is caused by skipping the gym too many times. Too often, we assume these symptoms are easily explained by modern life, aging, or a bad day. We move the goalposts to try to absorb a new normal.
But that can be dangerous. Constant insomnia, loss of appetite, mood changes, weakness, weight loss: all of these can add up and impact your wellbeing and functionality or even lead to serious medical conditions.
How to Fix Low Cortisol Levels
If you are experiencing symptoms of low cortisol, you shouldn’t assume everything is fine. You should get tested. Don’t leave it to guesswork, wishful thinking, and cognitive dissonance; you can’t hope your way into hormonal balance.
Today, getting tested for cortisol is an easy process. The best way to get started is to find a qualified health care practitioner who specializes in hormonal health. They’ll have the knowledge and tools necessary to evaluate your cortisol levels and determine if cortisol could be the source of your symptoms. If you do have low cortisol levels, they can then design a personalized treatment plan to help bring your cortisol back into a healthy range and alleviate your symptoms.
Cortisol is a product of evolution and can be an extraordinary protective force. But when cortisol levels are less than ideal, your mind and body can suffer and your health can be compromised. Contacting an expert in hormone health is the key first step to getting back in balance and reclaiming your life.
If you suspect you may have low cortisol levels or any other hormone imbalance, BodyLogicMD can help. The practitioners in the BodyLogicMD network specialize in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy and are among the top medical professionals in the country offering this innovative treatment. If you’re ready to take control of your health, BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioners can help you set meaningful wellness goals and create a treatment plan that’s customized to your individual needs. Contact a local practitioner in your area to start your journey toward optimal health, or take BodyLogicMD’s Hormone Balance Quiz to learn more about how hormones are impacting your everyday life and dive deeper into the benefits of BHRT.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. All content on this website is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended diagnose, treat, cure or prevent diseases.
Charlotte is a patient care coordinator specializing in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. She is committed to helping patients who struggle with the symptoms of hormonal change and imbalance explore their treatment options and develop effective strategies to optimize wellness.