Maybe it's just because I work in a bubble of holistic health and help clients overcome stress-related health issues for a living, but I have noticed more and more articles and references to cortisol coming up in the media lately. Recently, while waiting in line for my tea at a local cafe, I overheard random conversation in which one woman was telling her friend that she has been super stressed out and read somewhere that she should do a detox on the adrenal glands to help relax them so she can have lower cortisol levels. Yikes! I wish I knew where she got that information (please don't ever do or try to detox your adrenal glands!). The recurring theme that I have noticed is that cortisol is "bad" and that we need to work at bringing it down as much as we can in order to avoid burnout.
Today, I want to set the record straight on cortisol.
What is Cortisol and What Does It Do?
Cortisol is one of three stress hormones secreted by our adrenal glands (the two others being epinephrine and norepinephrine). Its purpose is to help the body's systems respond and adapt to both acute and long-term stressors. Being chased by a crazy neighbourhood dog (acute stress) will result in an immediate cortisol release by the adrenal glands and then, after the threat is over, cortisol levels go back to normal and we are back on our merry way. Long-term stressors like financial, relationship, parenting, workplace, traumatic events, result in an almost constant release of cortisol into the blood stream. This is what I like to call being in a state of Chronic Survival Mode and, while cortisol is doing the job it is designed to do, this is not an ideal predicament for the body to be in.
Most cells within the body have cortisol receptors. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, a combination glands often referred to as the HPA axis.
Because most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, it affects many different functions in the body. Cortisol is an important hormone for helping control blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, helping reduce inflammation, protecting against autoimmune disorders, control and prevention of infections, and assisting with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being. So when I read articles or hear conversations which state that we need to be working to get our cortisol levels "low", I cringe.
Low cortisol is not the goal. Balanced cortisol is.
When cortisol goes awry we see a number of imbalances within the body, including:
One of the most unpleasant symptoms of cortisol imbalance for many women is hormonal disruption. PMS, worsened menopausal symptoms, acne, low sex drive and more troublesome conditions such as PCOS and thyroid dysfunction are not uncommon in overworked, under-slept, stressed-out women. When we can get cortisol back into a natural rhythm, our other hormones will fall into place. Our hormones are not independent from one another - they communicate and work together, so when cortisol is off, chances are your other hormones will be also.
When cortisol is running too high, we often see high insulin which can lead to hunger (especially for the sugary "quick and dirties"), excess fat storage and mood swings. Excess cortisol can also lead to leaky gut, imbalanced gut bacteria and even autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis (which was the case for me), rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
How Can You Cortisol Back Into Balance?
In my practice, I approach each client individually and create strategies specifically tailored to their own unique needs. That said, there are a number of lifestyle practices that ring true for anyone looking to restore balance and harmony to not only their cortisol levels, but also their other hormones and entire body:
It is important to work closely with an experienced healthcare practitioner if you are concerned that your cortisol may be out of balance. Integrative practitioners such as certified nutritional practitioners (like me), and naturopathic doctors can run certain laboratory tests to check your levels of cortisol throughout the day, as well as what your other hormones are up to so that your symptoms can be managed effectively and safely.
If you would like to explore how your cortisol and other hormones are working within your body, book your free 30-minute consultation session where we can discuss testing and how I can help.
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!