Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is made by the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys. It is the only hormone that can increase with age. When one is stressed, cortisol levels increase (fight or flight response) to handle the situation. Levels are supposed to come back down to normal once the stress has passed. Unfortunately in modern day society this does not always happen. When we live in survival mode instead of thriving, the adrenal glands divert production of hormones from the reproductive system to fuel survival. This leads to hormonal imbalances and low hormone levels. The symptoms include anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability, mood swings and brain fog.
The adrenal glands are part of the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal). The adrenal glands help control more than 50 hormones necessary for life, including epinephrine, cortisol, DHEA, progesterone, and testosterone. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are found in the brain and together with adrenal glands control body functions by interacting with and signaling each other. Together these three regulate your stress response, mood, metabolism, energy levels, immune system, hormones and thyroid.
Cortisol is responsible for regulating the immune system, mainly by reducing inflammation. Cortisol also normalizes blood sugar, regulates metabolism, helps with memory formation, regulates blood pressure and electrolyte balance. Cortisol is responsible for our circadian rhythm, peaking between 7 and 9 am as we get our day started and lowest at bedtime so we can have healthy sleep cycles.
Adrenal hyperfunction (too much cortisol) weakens the immune system, leading to increased susceptibility to infections and cancer. High cortisol robs the body of hormones because the body has to choose survival over reproductive health. Cortisol also competes with
progesterone for common receptors, leading to lower levels of active progesterone. High levels of cortisol also disrupt blood sugar balance, causing low energy, sugar cravings and abdominal weight gain. Over time this can lead to insulin resistance. Excessive cortisol interferes with thyroid function and can eventually cause to thyroid failure.
Adrenal burnout or adrenal fatigue happens over time from prolonged exposure to chronic stress. The body cannot sustain the high cortisol levels indefinitely and so the brain shuts down cortisol production in an effort to protect itself. Low cortisol symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, loss of libido, brain fog, and emotional instability. Too little cortisol leads to an overactive immune system (allergies) and autoimmune disease.
Treatment of adrenal dysfunction must include stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, massage, mindfulness exercises and deep breathing exercises. Healing adrenal glands takes time and is best achieved with targeted supplements (pharmaceutical grade). Herbal adaptogens are natural compounds that help the body resist an extreme response to stress by normalizing the HPA axis. Adaptogenic herbs are able to both tone down overactive adrenal glands and boost underactive adrenals. For high cortisol, Ashwaganda, Skullcap, Rhodiola rosea and Eleuthera root are excellent herbs. Adrenal hyperfunction also benefits from taking calming brain supplements such as phosphatidylserine and L-theanine. For low cortisol, Shisandra, ginseng and licorice root extract are helpful. Low cortisol can also be treated with adrenal extracts (natural compounds) but should not be treated with synthetic steroids.