Cortisol Levels in Women

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What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys. The most notorious of the stress hormones, it has actually earned the nickname "the stress hormone" because it is released as the body's natural response to stress. Cortisol can be helpful in the short term, but long-term stress can cause the adrenal glands to become overworked and this oftentimes leads to a medical condition referred to as hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis dysfunction (HPA), or mostly commonly known as adrenal fatigue. In a nutshell, this is how elevated stress levels (which contribute to elevated cortisol levels) make us feel exhausted and can sometimes lead to depression. Cortisol can affect different cells in different ways, which include regulating blood sugar levels, influencing memory, influencing blood pressure, and acting as an anti-inflammatory.

Natural levels of cortisol in the blood rise and fall as the day goes on but are generally higher mid-day. This natural pattern is known as a diurnal rhythm. In addition to producing and secreting cortisol in response to elevated levels of stress, the adrenals also provide the body with cortisol as a result of exercise, excitement, and low blood sugar. The secretion of cortisol is primarily controlled by the adrenal glands, the pituitary glands, and the hypothalamus of the brain; these three regions are commonly referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

Causes of Abnormal Cortisol Levels

While stress affects women and men alike, women are oftentimes more susceptible to the effects of chronic stress and cortisol imbalance. Women have a lot of roles to live up to, and that can obviously lead to stressful situations. They're caretakers, nurturers, wives, mothers and many times business professionals. Juggling it all can certainly become overwhelming, to say the least. When you factor in the fluctuating levels of hormones women face as they age, the combination can lead to a massive increase in cortisol release. These forms of long-term stress can create a vicious cycle (also known as a feedback loop) where elevated stress levels contribute to adrenal fatigue which, in turn, then further contributes to high levels of stress. Elevated cortisol may be related to Cushing's syndrome, and can also result from certain types of tumors. High cortisol levels in women can also beget a loss in sex drive, as well as irregularities in the frequency and strength of menstrual periods.

On the other hand, there are certain factors that can reduce cortisol levels. This inadequate level of cortisol production, a form of adrenal insufficiency, can often be attributed to issues with the pituitary gland or the adrenal gland (like Addison's disease). Insufficient cortisol levels in women can also be a result of autoimmune diseases and the use of glucocorticoids (strong medicines that are used to combat inflammation). Low cortisol levels can also cause the pituitary gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). A rise in ACTH then leads to a rise in cortisol. Since the two hormones are so directly related, this begins another feedback loop wherein one hormone causes the other to rise, which then causes the other to drop, and so on. ACTH and cortisol then fluctuate more extremely from one end to the other if the imbalance is left unchecked.

Signs and Symptoms of Abnormal Cortisol Levels

Symptoms of cortisol imbalance in women are similar to those typified by other irregularities in hormone levels, such as perimenopause and menopause, and often include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Weight gain and increased belly fat (including visceral fat, which is deep abdominal fat that surrounds the organs)
  • Bone and muscle loss
  • Foggy thinking and memory loss
  • High blood sugar
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • High blood pressure
  • Skin blemishes (which often resemble bruises or purple stretch marks)
  • Hair loss (on the head)
  • Hirsutism (growth of hair in areas like the upper lip, chest, back, etc.)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Nausea
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness when standing up

Many of these detrimental symptoms fall under the scope of Cushing's syndrome (elevated cortisol levels) and Addison's disease (insufficient cortisol levels).

Treatment for Abnormal Cortisol Levels

Studies have revealed that women who eat balanced meals and partake in physical activity 3-5 times a week live longer, healthier lives because of it. If the long-term stress persists, over time, the adrenal glands can become overworked, which can present a whole new set of problems. Therefore, it is important to find ways to control chronic stress and arrest elevated cortisol levels before adrenal fatigue has a chance to develop and lead to adrenal exhaustion. Stress reduction techniques, consistent exercise, and dietary changes can assist in managing cortisol.

Yet, there may be times when this process cannot be arrested with diet and lifestyle changes alone. When imbalanced hormone levels need to be fully evaluated and corrected at their source, the highly trained bioidentical hormone doctors at BodyLogicMD can help. BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioners use state-of-the-art diagnostic testing to identify hormonal imbalances and use a combination of natural bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) in conjunction with customized nutrition and fitness programs that meet the needs of each patient. Salivary cortisol testing and urine cortisol testing are both quick and easy and may very well provide the solution you've been looking for to overcome chronic stress and symptoms of cortisol imbalance.

Updated March 25, 2019
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