We often talk about the negative impacts of having too much cortisol. What are the positive impacts of this stress hormone?
You may have heard that cortisol, a stress hormone, is responsible for weight gain and chronic health issues. Some people have gone as far as calling this essential hormone that triggers our fight-or-flight response “the death hormone.” But is this really the case?
The answer: nope! Cortisol is not all bad news – in fact, it is responsible for many essential functions.
Along with several other hormones, our cortisol fluctuates throughout the day. Our internal clock, also known as our circadian rhythm, allows for cortisol levels to increase to help us get up in the morning and decrease as night progresses to allow for melatonin levels to increase in the body which in turn, allows us to sleep.
Among other functions, cortisol is also responsible for:
The answer is simple: because of cortisol’s link to chronic stress. While cortisol has a huge part in helping us deal with stress, having high amounts of constant stress in our lives is what’s damaging.
When our body goes into fight or flight mode, our sugar levels increase, our senses increase, our heart pumps blood faster to prepare our body for the fight or flight response, and in all of these functions, cortisol is being released into our blood stream to help us survive. Once the danger is over, cortisol levels will decrease, and our body goes back to normal. But what happens when we are in a constant state of stress? Some issues associated with high chronic levels of stress are:
However, these issues are linked to high levels of stress and not always high levels of cortisol. In fact, low cortisol levels are associated with several health issues, such as Addison’s disease which can cause:
As much as we want to blame cortisol for a lot of our health issues such as weight gain and lack of sleep, we must remember that it’s stress, and not cortisol alone, that has a huge negative impact on our body.
One of the most important recommendations I have given my clients is to test and not guess. I have seen many companies that sell products marketed to “lower cortisol levels,” but taking supplements to suppress a hormone without actually knowing where one’s hormone levels stand can actually do more harm than good.
In order to bring our body back to a state of balance (also known as homeostasis), it’s highly important to understand how our body works, how our hormones work, and what may be causing some of the issues and complaints that people have. For example, if someone is experiencing high levels of stress that are not allowing them to sleep, then it’s important to address that stressor directly. If it’s an external stressor (like work), then what should that person do to manage that specific stressor? If it’s an internal stressor (like digestive issues or an injury) then what needs to be done to address that stressor?
Some people argue that cortisol is responsible for adrenal fatigue, but that’s not the case. What used to be called “adrenal fatigue” (which is not recognized in the medical field), is what’s now known as “HPA axis dysfunction”. HPA stands for hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. These three parts of our body need to work together for our hormones to be in optimal levels. When there is dysfunction in our HPA axis, our hormones are not at optimal levels and this is when we experience fatigue, weight gain, and lack of sleep.
I started my journey as a health coach by losing 65 pounds and then competing in a fitness competition. Unfortunately, my trainer at the time had me on a very low-fat diet which caused issues such as imbalanced hormones, unexplained weight gain, inflammation, and a shoulder injury. After spending time attempting to uncover why I felt ill, I realized that my symptoms may have been catalyzed by the lifestyle path that my initial trainer had recommended. Around that time, a lot of people in my circle were talking about “adrenal fatigue” and “weight gain by cortisol.” I had thought that by losing weight, my health would improve. Instead, I ended up with a host of issues that I couldn’t explain.
I found a new trainer, who was a very well-respected and knowledgeable coach. He initially thought that my cortisol levels were getting in the way of my progress (meaning my cortisol levels were high, according to him at the time). As I dove into trying to figure out what was happening with me, one of the issues I encountered was that I had a lot of digestive problems. My digestion had gotten so bad that I had to time my travel in such a way that I wouldn’t find myself without access to a public restroom. I was also having horrible sleep issues that kept me up at night.
When I began my studies in functional health I was able to run several lab tests and found out that I had a very common parasite that has been linked to IBS, which I had been diagnosed with at the time. Sure, my cortisol levels were a little high in the evening, because my body recognized that I was in a high level of constant stress due to the infection I had. My slightly high levels of evening cortisol got in the way of my melatonin production.
But was cortisol responsible? Not really, cortisol was doing its job of trying to bring homeostasis to my situation. Cortisol wasn’t the enemy in this case and as my coach had suggested, my cortisol wasn’t “getting in the way”. What was getting in the way, however, was my lack of absorption of nutrients and lack of sleep caused by a parasite.
I dug into research and with the help of a couple of my mentors at the place I was studying, I put myself on a protocol that included several supplements to balance my gut health which included specific probiotics, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, an anti-parasitic and a specific diet to help me with my situation. Within a few weeks, my digestive issues were gone, my sleep improved dramatically, my inflammation levels dropped, and I lost the extra weight. That was four years ago, and I continue to feel great. The IBS I had been diagnosed with has been gone for four years.
One of my clients came to me with chronic fatigue and digestive issues. Upon running a few lab tests on him, I realized that his hormone levels for his age were not incredibly out of balance. His constipation was caused by a bacterial imbalance. He was eating an incredible amount of (added) sugar for breakfast through the seemingly-healthy organic cereal and fresh and dried fruit he consumed daily for constipation.
The added sugars contributed to the bacterial imbalance. My recommendations and protocol included changing his diet to add more healthy fats, adding more fiber from fresh vegetables, lowering his sugar consumption, drinking more water, and adding a few supplements (which included a specific probiotic, different than the one I had used for my situation). Within a few days, his chronic fatigue issues went away, and his digestion improved drastically to the point of no longer having constipation. He was extremely happy with the results obtained and after three years, he wrote to me to say:
“As I have said many times in the past, you are the most conscientious and caring health practitioner that I've ever encountered. Your determination and perseverance to help me with my mystery illness has given me the new life that I'm now living and enjoying every day. My heart-felt thanks for what you did for me in my time of need.”
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably interested in learning more about cortisol, because of the hype we attribute to blaming this hormone for different ailments. While self-research is an excellent first step, the only way to truly uncover why you are feeling “meh” is to get your hormones tested and have a qualified practitioner support you in creating a specific plan that is tailored to your specific needs. It very may well be that you don’t have a parasite like I did, but it may be a different seemingly unrelated issue that can be easily corrected.
My case and my client’s case are two examples of people with symptoms that may have been considered a result of “adrenal fatigue” but were clearly not. These two examples demonstrate not only how important it is to assume that cortisol is to blame for your symptoms, but also the imperativeness of getting to the root of your problem. One of my mentors taught me to “test, don’t guess” and taking this approach in my practice has helped myself and my clients feel better. No two people are the same, and that’s why it’s important that you personalize your symptom management to the best extent possible rather than begin a cortisol blocker - or other supplement regimen – that is not tailored to your own lab work’s findings.
Here a few things to remember when trying to figure out what is going on with your adrenals: