With high levels of stress, the body releases from the adrenal glands a hormone called cortisol to strengthen adaptation. Balanced functions of cortisol are essential to your health, but chronically high cortisol breaks your body down. It is a common cause for illness in people who are chronically stressed.
Insulin is the body’s most anabolic hormone in your body and controls repair and maintenance of every part of the body. Cortisol is the most catabolic hormone in your body as its’ primary function is to break down body tissues to produce energy in response to stress.
It’s normal for your cortisol levels to be highest upon waking in the morning, to be lower later in the day, and to be lowest at night. This is the circadian cortisol rhythm.
Cortisol and the Immune System
Cortisol is a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. But, high cortisol levels decrease immune response, as measured by secretory IgA, in the linings of the lungs, throat, kidneys, bladder, and intestinal tract. Abnormal cortisol levels also weaken the intestinal wall, resulting in increased risk of developing ulcers, colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and unhealthy intestinal flora.
Cortisol and the Brain
High cortisol levels can cause atrophy of the region of the brain where memories are processed and stored (hippocampus), and accounting for the impaired memory seen in people who are chronically stressed.
Cortisol, Diabetes, Pain, Fatigue…
Abdominal fat is a common outcome of high cortisol. Muscle and joint aches and pain often result from impaired ability to maintain muscle, cartilage, and connective tissue repair. The same process predisposes to osteoporosis, thinning of skin, poor wound healing, and muscle wasting. Abnormal cortisol levels are a common cause of thyroid problems.
Cortisol, Poor Sleep, Depression…
Abnormal circadian rhythm of cortisol results in waking tired in the morning (high cortisol upsets the normal REM stage sleep), fatigue during the day along with craving caffeine and sugar to provide temporary relief, and difficulty getting to sleep at night. The disturbed sleep has shown to be causative of depression.
Cortisol and “Medical Mysteries”
Often patients will see doctors who are not trained to recognize this wide collection of symptoms and will diagnose the individual conditions, such as depression or osteoporosis, but not the underlying issue abnormal cortisol levels. Poor cortisol regulation commonly result in the constellation of symptoms often called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia.
Cortisol imbalances can easily be determined through examination and laboratory testing. A particularly useful test is the Adrenal Stress Index test that measures the circadian rhythm of cortisol. Essential to cortisol regulation and adrenal function requires restoring balance (modulation) to the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis and autonomic nervous system.