We often associate the hormone cortisol to the bodily stress we are feeling. In a way, that connection has something to do with the fact that cortisol is active during the body’s response during stressful situations, and this is also why it is called as a stress hormone. Alternatively known as hydrocortisone, cortisol is an adrenal hormone that affects almost all systems of the human body.
These days, people should be keener in maintaining their cortisol levels. While it is a normal body response to secrete cortisol during stressful events, cortisol levels should also stabilize and go back to their normal levels in a short period of time. However, there have been cases reported that because of the frequent barrage of stress being experienced, the body may be having a difficult time to normalize its cortisol levels.
Daily levels of cortisol vary depending on what time of the day and what activities or events are happening—this is why it matters to know what cortisol does to the body and what signs you should watch out for to track any possible imbalance.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced from cholesterol in the adrenal glands located on top of each kidney, and is vital in maintaining the body’s homeostasis. Along with epinephrine, cortisol is involved in the body’s fight or flight response, and the increase in the body’s production energy to sustain stressful circumstances.
Given that almost all body cells carry cortisol receptors, this hormone has various functions depending on which cell signals the need for it to act. Cortisol also influences the response of the immune system, blood sugar levels, memory formation, salt and water balance, blood pressure, anti-inflammatory mechanism, central nervous system, heart and blood vessel mechanisms, and fat, carbohydrate and protein metabolisms to maintain blood sugar levels.
Cortisol levels fluctuate in different times of the day, based on the diurnal rhythm. Usually, levels peak in the morning and reach lowest during the afternoon, after the most active hours of the body. However, with too much pressure and stress to human life, recent medical data have shown that some illnesses are results of the body’s inability to bring cortisol level back to normal.
The secretion of cortisol is controlled mainly by three glands in the body: the adrenal gland, the pituitary gland, and the hypothalamus gland. These glands comprise the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is a vital region in the body primarily concerned with the secretion of cortisol in the bloodstream.
Effects of cortisol on the human body
Cortisol is primarily active during stressful events, but its functions in maintaining homeostasis is also one of the greatest concerns in medical history. While cortisol is mainly concerned with metabolic processes, it is also vital in the body’s immunity, ion transportation and even in one’s memory.
When cortisol levels abnormally increase and elevate, the process can have significant effects on the immune system, as well as weight management and the risk of chronic diseases.
When cortisol levels are not normal, this can lead to serious health issues such as adrenal fatigue, which is experienced when adrenal glands are not in their normal state. When adrenal glands are not functioning well, the resulting poor cortisol level causes the body systems to malfunction where cortisol receptors are found. When this takes place, the body may not show physical symptoms of illnesses, but people who are in the state of adrenal fatigue may feel unwell, uneasy, and tired all the time.
Elevated or abnormally low levels of cortisol are both detrimental to the human body given that cortisol signals the body systems to act depending on the levels being sensed and encountered.
What is cortisol imbalance?
Because of stressful situations that come with work, school, or any other aspect of human life, one of the major illnesses triggered is the occurrence of cortisol imbalance. When this happens, the adrenal glands do not function well, resulting to abnormally high or low levels of cortisol secretion.
The occurrence of cortisol imbalance results to weight gain, irregularities in the female reproducti0ve system particularly in menstrual periods, psychological illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia, among others. Some also experience intense craving for sugar, memory problems, chills, hot flashes and intense sweating.
Cortisol imbalance usually results to gastrointestinal issues such as indigestion and disruption of abso0rp0tion, inflammation and irritation of mucosal lining, and even ulcer, muscle weakness, onset of dark spots on the skin, weakening of the immune system, and occurrence of cardiovascular and reproductive illnesses.
A prolonged high level of cortisol is associated to Cushing’s syndrome, while prolonged low levels of cortisol is associated to Addison’s disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Cortisol Imbalance
Cortisol imbalance can be caused by its abnormally low or high levels in the body. Common causes of cortisol imbalance are poor diet, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise—which are all vital factors that greatly affect one’s immunity and response to stress. Other causes may include the use of medications and having frequent negative mindsets causing one’s depression, extreme anger, and frustration.
Signs of High Cortisol Level
- High blood pressure
- Very slow wound and bruise healing
- Weakened immune function
- Poor cognitive performance
- Poor thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia
- Decreased muscle mass and weakening of the muscles
- Decreased density of the bones that usually leads to osteoporosis
- Increased abdominal fats leading to strokes, heart attacks, high levels of LDL or bad cholesterol
- Mood swings
- Frequent thirst and frequent urination
- Low sex drive
- Swelling of hands and feet
- Occurrence of acne and other skin diseases
Signs of Low Cortisol Level
- Intense craving for salty food
- Frequent headache and general body ache
- Faintness and dizziness
- Severe back pains
- Extremely sensitive skin
- Frequent abdominal pain
- Psychological illnesses such as insomnia and depression
- Weakened muscles
- Clumsiness and confusion
- Irregularity of menstrual period
- Low capacity of the bladder
Cortisol imbalance can be traced through the Adrenal Stress Index (ASI), a salivary test for cortisol level. While there may be test kits available in the market, professionals should be the one to interpret the test results gathered.
However, some people prefer to assess their cortisol level through testing kits because they can monitor it with ease, saving them from the hassle of needles and injections. Since cortisol imbalance usually results to weight gain, it is also helpful to use specialized kits intended for tracking weight differences throughout a given period of time.
Treating cortisol imbalance always begins with gaining the right information related to one’s health. Given the very demanding lifestyles nowadays, most people would ignore health issues until it is too late. Monitoring cortisol levels is now made easier through a variety of ways—and this is where your treatment program begins.
Treatment for low cortisol
The usual treatment given to patients with low cortisol is cortisol injections or hydrocortisone tablets. These tablets are meant to mimic the natural cortisol in the body. However, cortisol supplements should only be given to patients who have extremely low cortisol levels, because they may cause the loss of natural cortisol secretion of the adrenal glands if given to patients with mild cases.
For patients who have mild cortisol deficiency, natural treatments can be tried. These natural treatments are connected to stress management like yoga or meditation, getting more sleep, and engaging in more exercise.
Having a balanced and healthy diet also helps in increasing cortisol levels in the body. Patients with mild cortisol deficiency are advised to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and grapefruit to limit cortisol production in the adrenal glands.
Treatment for high cortisol
Patients with high cortisol levels are usually advised to have natural treatments to normalize their hormones. Stress management is the number one natural treatment that experts suggest. Stress management programs include deep-breathing exercises, meditation, acupuncture, and doing outdoor activities to let the body breathe in some fresh air. These techniques are vital to help the body relax.
An anti-inflammatory diet is also needed to restore the normal cortisol level in the body. This includes low amounts of processed food and higher intake of antioxidants and other essential nutrients that can be found in fruits and vegetables.
Restraining one’s self from taking in alcohol and too much caffeine is also part of the treatment. It is also critical to maintain a low-glycemic diet that includes leafy vegetables, food with coconut or olive oil, nuts, and probiotic food such as yogurt.
Getting enough sleep lowers cortisol levels in the body, but for patients with high cortisol levels, this might be one of the greatest challenges. It is advised to do exercise to naturally tire the body, that will eventually promote rest and sleep.
Trying out essential oils to promote relaxation also does the trick. Inhaling oils that have the ability to normalize hormonal imbalances such as peppermint and jojoba could greatly help in the process.
It is impossible to live a life without stress. While it is normal to face stress in one’s growth and development, health should never be disregarded.
A person’s capacity to properly respond to stressful events manifests in the cortisol levels in the body. When cortisol levels are abnormal, then it will prevent a person from overcoming stress, and may lead to more health problems affecting other body systems altogether.
Having said that, everyone should be conscious of his or her well-being to ensure that the body responds and eventually recovers accordingly. It also helps to seek help from the experts so that it will be easier to monitor and track possible illnesses that may be present in the body. This way, treatment will be given earlier and will hopefully resolve health issues you did not know you were having.
Finally, always push yourself to breathe, take it easy, and relax even in the most stressful situations—your cortisol levels will thank you for it!