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What is Cortisol?

What is Cortisol, and how is it Detected?

Cortisol is commonly referred to as "the stress hormone." The hormone is mostly secreted by the adrenal glands and released into the bloodstream as a "fight or flight response" to stress, although cortisol is also produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and the pituitary glands. The highest quantities of cortisol are supposed to be produced in the early morning hours with production slowly tapering off throughout the day, but this largely depends on a person's daily activity patterns. On average, cortisol levels rise and fall throughout the day, especially when a person is faced with a lot of stress or the levels of their other hormones are thrown into disarray. In addition to stress and a lack of hormone balance, other factors can also trigger increased cortisol production and cortisol release, such as exercise, excitement, and low blood sugar.

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Understanding the Natural Stress Response

On the short-term, cortisol can be life-saving because it helps the body deal with stress. As the stress is dealt with, balance can be restored in the body and the cortisol level returns to its normal, lower level. Unfortunately, many of us live stressful lives and experience heightened stress levels for extended periods of time. This constant state of alarm is also known as chronic stress, and it can oftentimes lead to a variety of symptoms resulting from an excess of cortisol production. In some cases, high cortisol levels inhibit the production of insulin, a hormone responsible for metabolic functions and the regulation of blood sugar levels. When this happens, the results vary from weight gain to more serious health conditions, such as type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome (syndrome X). In other cases, too much cortisol can be the product of a condition known as Cushing syndrome. This condition is known for debilitating symptoms that include:

  • Weight gain (especially in the form of belly fat)
  • Thinning skin that is more susceptible to bruising
  • Pink or purple stretch marks
  • Acne

For men, Cushing's syndrome can also lead to the following symptoms:

As it pertains to women's health, Cushing's syndrome is known to lead to:

  • Hirsutism (more robust hair growth on the body and face)
  • Erratic (or absent) menstrual cycles

Chronic stress and the ensuing overproduction of cortisol are the kinds of negative conditions that feed off each other. The more stressed you find yourself, the more cortisol your body will produce, and that leads to conditions that create more and more stress. This endless cycle of give-and-take is known as a feedback loop; finding a way to disrupt this loop is essential before it grows out of control. Failing to do so can have massive, negative effects on our health and well-being.

Fortunately, there are natural ways for us to reduce cortisol levels. The obvious way to accomplish this feat would be to reduce our levels of stress. Now, different people will find themselves in different stressful situations, so finding a way to avoid high-stress scenarios will vary for everybody. However, there are some things we can all do to make it easier to manage those stressful situations whenever they arise. One such way to improve our stress response is by getting more and better sleep. Another would be moderate exercise; intense exercise actually raises cortisol levels. There are also a number of different foods that can improve the body's stress response:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Water
  • Black and green tea
  • Probiotic-rich foods (such as yogurt)
  • Many different types of fruit (including bananas and pears)

While all of these natural remedies can improve our stress response, they tend to become less effective as we age after the onset of menopause and andropause. At that point, you may find it necessary to turn to supplements that are known to reduce cortisol levels, like rhodiola and ashwagandha.

What Happens if you have too Little Cortisol?

Cortisol deficiency is a form of adrenal insufficiency and can be every bit as detrimental to our health and well-being as high cortisol. While low cortisol levels can be traced to autoimmune diseases and the use of glucocorticoid medications (for dealing with inflammation), these low levels are oftentimes the result of issues with the adrenal gland and/or pituitary gland that lead to low cortisol production. Inadequate cortisol levels can also be indicative of a more serious condition like Addison’s Disease. This rare condition is usually accompanied by a slew of debilitating symptoms, such as:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Low blood sugar
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Dizziness when standing up
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

Low cortisol levels can also lead to the pituitary gland releasing the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). As the levels of ACTH increase, so do the levels of cortisol, and we now find ourselves in another feedback loop. Cortisol and ACTH then fluctuate from low to high and back to low, constantly feeding off each other and intensifying all of the accompanying symptoms. Without breaking the loop, these hormone levels can fluctuate all over the place and possibly lead to more serious health issues.

The Connection between Cortisol and Dopamine

There is also a strong correlation between dopamine and stress. While dopamine is not, itself, a hormone, it is a vital neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for creating the adrenalin hormone during stress response. During chronic stress, we know that the body becomes flooded with cortisol. It turns out that often comes at the expense of dopamine, because the body will basically replace dopamine with the excess cortisol. When the body is faced with a deficiency of dopamine, a whole other set of issues can occur. These issues can start with simple cognitive problems like a lack of focus or poor memory. Low dopamine levels can also wreak havoc on the endorphins, which negatively impacts our pleasure sensors and can bring on anxiety and even depression. If left unchecked over time, some studies have suggested that inadequate levels of dopamine can cultivate the perfect conditions for a host of far more serious issues, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • A variety of autoimmune disorders

Fixing the Problem

The best part about getting your cortisol levels tested is that there is no blood draw required - instead you simply fill a few tubes with your saliva and the saliva is then shipped off to a lab for analysis. The highly trained bioidentical hormone practitioners at BodyLogicMD use saliva testing to help determine patients' cortisol levels throughout the day. Urine testing can also be done to track cortisol levels throughout the day. Based on the test results, a BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioner will help balance your cortisol levels, using a combination of stress reduction techniques, personalized nutrition and fitness regimens, pharmaceutical-grade supplementation and bioidentical cortisol replacement therapy. With your physician-supervised, individually-tailored stress management and wellness program, optimal health and peace of mind are well within reach.

Updated January 8, 2020
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