Cortisol is a hormone the body produces for many purposes but we usually think of it as the stress, or “fight or flight” hormone. It also regulates the body’s use of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, reduces inflammation, regulates blood pressure, and increases blood sugar (glucose). Because of these effects, it is involved in our weight control.
The normal pattern for cortisol is for the levels to be low all night long, and around 6AM, the body produces a large amount to be prepared for whatever stress we have and slowly decreases to low levels at night. This is the “Diurnal Rhythm”. It is also normal if, due to a stressful event, the cortisol levels go up again in response to the stress. When the stressful event resolves, the levels return to the normal diurnal pattern. However, if we have a stressful event which does not go away, (Chronic Stress) the cortisol levels remain high throughout the day and night. Chronic stress can be as simple as not eating breakfast in the morning (stressful to the body due to 18 hours a day of no food) to a chronic illness of you or a loved one or anything in between.
In this situation, the cortisol can shut down digestive or reproductive systems, the immune system, or even growth processes. It can also lead to various symptoms including: Weight Gain, insomnia, memory/concentration problems, heart disease, anxiety/depression, and headache. Note that if your cortisol levels are elevated, you will not be able to lose weight.
An uncommon reason for elevated cortisol is an abnormal production by the body from a tumor on the adrenal gland or in the pituitary gland. This is called “Cushing’s Disease”. This is much less common than chronic stress as a reason for too much cortisol.
So what do we do to reduce the cortisol levels? The primary thing which needs to be done is to reduce or eliminate the stress. Unfortunately this is not always possible, so the next best option is to improve our response to the stress. Take 10 minutes away from other people, your phone, and any other technology and reflect on good things in your life. Prayer and meditation can be helpful. To reduce dietary stress, be sure to eat a good, nutritious breakfast which reduces the amount of time our bodies go without food and also reduces food cravings which are usually empty calories which add only weight to our bodies. Making a better effort to get proper quality sleep is essential.
Additionally, some nutritional supplements can be of benefit. Pregnenolone and/or DHEA can replace some of the building blocks of our sex hormones which are being “stolen” to make the extra cortisol. Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwaganda, ginseng, and rhodiola will help our bodies reduce the cortisol burden. Natural sleep aids like L-tryptophan, valerian, or melatonin can aid sleep problems.
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