Stress, if not managed properly, can lead to mood swings, trouble concentrating, weight gain, fatigue, thyroid issues, trouble sleeping, digestive complaints, low libido, hormonal imbalances of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, accelerated aging, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and other health issues.
Cortisol is the major ‘stress’ hormone made in our adrenal glands. Most of the cells in our body contain receptors for cortisol, so stress can have effects on many different body systems! Cortisol is a part of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) which controls stress and regulates body processes such as blood sugar, metabolism, digestion, blood pressure, memory, emotions, mood, thyroid, melatonin, and others.
What affects our cortisol levels?
Our blood levels of cortisol vary throughout the day naturally, known as a diurnal rhythm. Generally, cortisol should be highest in the morning and gradually fall throughout the day. This natural flow of cortisol can be disrupted by many different stressors. General life stress, emotional stress, physical stress, fatigue, burnout and night shift work can alter and actually reverse our cortisol rhythm.
Examples may include:
- Busy, full schedule (kids included – we are seeing too many kids over-scheduled!)
- Lack of sleep and fatigue (caffeine dependence)
- Too much screen time – TV, computer, phone
- Too little or too much exercise
- Poor food choices (blood sugar, nutrient deficiencies)
- Gut inflammation and food intolerances
- Environmental toxins
- Negative internal thoughts
- Loneliness – lack of support or sense of community
How does stress change cortisol levels?
When we experience stress, cortisol and neurotransmitters are released during the immediate ‘fight or flight’ stress response. This leads to symptoms such as increased heart rate and breathing, slowing of digestion and constriction of blood vessels so that we can respond to this stress response. Normally the negative feedback loop of the HPA axis will allow us to settle when that stress response is over and our cortisol levels go back to their regular rhythm. Stress is manageable when interspersed throughout the day because we get time to recover. However, if stress remains high for most of the day, our bodies can’t re-balance and cortisol remains higher than desired. This can give you a false sense of energy, as you are ‘running on adrenalin” or you may feel ‘wired but tired’.
In chronic stress exposure, our bodies try to adapt while cortisol continues to increase and become imbalanced (too high and eventually too low). Chronic stress activates the HPA axis differently compared to experiencing short term stress. Imbalanced cortisol can lead to mood swings, trouble concentrating, weight gain, fatigue, thyroid issues, trouble sleeping, digestive complaints, low libido, hormonal imbalances of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, accelerated aging, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and other health issues.
Diagnosis is usually done on the basis of a thorough intake and physical exam along with an easy take home urine or saliva test kit. These tests provide an accurate representation of your individual cortisol levels by taking multiple samples of either saliva or urine throughout the day. This is superior to testing cortisol levels in the serum (blood sample) as that would reflect only a single representation of your cortisol at that specific time. Also, blood sampling can be stressful to some individuals which in turn would raise cortisol levels in that moment. Along with testing for cortisol, if deemed appropriate testing for other hormones including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone may be suggested and included.
Treatment is based on the individual patient case, their test results and seeking/correcting the root cause of the cortisol imbalance and any sequelae. There are many naturopathic interventions available including dietary and lifestyle interventions and nutritional or herbal supplementation based on the individual situation. Come see us today to talk about cortisol and other hormonal imbalances to see if testing would be right for you!
For more information on hormonal imbalances and cortisol, including testing, contact us at Bedford Naturopathic 902-835-4907 or email@example.com