Cortisol is a hormone that is absolutely crucial for life. Without it we would not be able to survive. However, when we live in chronic strain, worry, and stress, the adrenal glands produce relatively high amounts of cortisol. The problem with cortisol is that our bodies are not meant to be exposed to these relatively high amounts for long periods of time. However, many people who have stress as an obstacle to cure are experiencing the negative effects of cortisol.
High cortisol decreases immunity. Cortisol is a corticosteroid and like prednisone, cortisone, and beclomethasone, it inhibits the actions of white blood cells. Initially, this usually leads to increased susceptibility to infections. Eventually, this may actually lead to long stretches of time without colds because the immune system is so weakened.
High cortisol increases abdominal fat deposition. For reasons still unknown, high levels of cortisol induce the body to lay down adipose tissue in the abdomen and upper back/neck. In fact, for those people affected it is next to impossible to lose abdominal fat without addressing stress.
High cortisol breaks down muscle, bone, and connective tissue. Cortisol is a gluconeogenic hormone. Gluconeogenesis is a process that creates sugar from existing tissue. Cortisol promotes the breakdown of muscle, bone, and connective tissue in order to increase blood sugar for the brain.
High cortisol inhibits thyroid hormone activation. The thyroid gland makes 2 major hormones; thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyroine (T3). It predominantly makes T4, which is actually an in-active hormone. T4 is carried in the bloodstream and eventually hits a receptor on or in a cell and becomes activate to T3. High cortisol inhibits this conversion and thus creates a form of hypothyroid.
Healthy Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is a hormone that fluctuates during the course of the day with the circadian rhythm of the body. However, stress can greatly affect the way cortisol is produced and secreted and result in significant changes from the optimal circadian rhythm. Upon rising each morning cortisol levels are about at their highest. In fact, relatively high cortisol levels are one of the things that wakes us up in the morning. As the day goes on cortisol levels should gradually decline until they hit a trough around 8-10pm. They will stay low during deep sleep and gradually begin to increase around 4-6am until you awake.
Stress significantly impacts the production and secretion of cortisol during the day and night. Chronic stress not only elevates cortisol levels during the stressor but may also lead to cortisol spikes during the evening and overnight. High cortisol in the evening is one of the major reasons for insomnia, frequent waking, and night sweats.
Natural treatments to restore healthy cortisol levels are crucial for anyone suffering from the effects of elevated cortisol. Stress management techniques are extremely important and may include deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Adaptogenic herbs, B complex vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, glandular extracts, and homeopathic remedies support the adrenal glands and help restore the circadian rhythm. Consult your naturopathic physician for a specific plan to evaluate and address your cortisol levels.
In next week’s column we will investigate the signs that stress is contributing to your health concerns. We will also examine the lab tests that can help determine the physiological impact of stress on the body.