The Cortisol Hormone Connection

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and if this hormone is out of balance it will affect all other hormones, including DHEA, glucose, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cholesterol, epinephrine and norepinephrine and best of all can create increase inflammation, which will lead to inflammatory disease states, when it is over secreted.

Your body was designed to respond to short bursts of stress, followed by long periods of rest and relaxation. In today’s world, however, time to relax is considered a luxury, while stress levels are at an all-time high.

Stress is frequently referred to as “the silent killer;” it has been associated with the top six causes of death. According to the American Psychological Association, two out of three visits to the primary care doctor are for health issues where stress plays a significant role.

The stress response is important for producing Cortisol in “flight or fight” situations of immediate danger, such as rescuing a child from a dangerous situation. It has an effect on other systems that results in a heightened sense of awareness, an accelerated heart rate and rapid breathing. These normal responses to immediate danger help you quickly respond to the threat.

A key component includes the adrenal glands that sit atop of each kidney. The adrenal glands are responsible for regulating the body’s strength and stamina, and release hormones and chemicals in response to stress.

The short term release of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream prepares the body for an essential and quick response to potential danger. However, chronic long term stress causes a continuous release of cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream, which can be damaging to the body if left unresolved. Stress can also affect the thyroid gland, causing a disruption in the normal production of thyroid hormones.

Three Stages of Cortisol Dysfunction

Stage 1: Alarm Phase (Hyper-Cortisol)

Individuals in this stage usually report feeling restless, irritated, or “wired.” Immediate stressful situations are causing high cortisol production, but there is inadequate signaling to shut off excessive cortisol production. This manifests in higher levels of cortisol at night. If left unchecked, it can eventually affect other systems in the body, such as weakening immune response as well as loss of sleep, anxiety, weight gain, insulin resistance and blood sugar fluctuations.

Stage 2: Resistance Phase (Cortisol-Dominant)

This stage may be the result of ongoing acute adrenal dysfunction or the accumulation of years of mild stress without adequate relaxation and recuperation. Lab testing may indicate erratic patterns of cortisol production, inadequate diurnal rhythm, as well as reduced levels of DHEA

Stage 3: Exhaustion Phase (Hypo-Cortisol)

This later stage of dysfunction is typically associated with a multitude of issues, including fatigue, severe insomnia, depression, hormonal imbalances, or an increase in pain and inflammatory conditions. Test results in stage three will show depleted levels of cortisol and DHEA (Addison’s disease is the complete loss of cortisol production). Individuals in this stage may find even the simplest tasks have become difficult to complete.

When most people think of “stress” they usually limit their definition to mental and emotional stressors. Going through a divorce or changing jobs can send your stress and cortisol levels soaring. However, blood sugar imbalances, inflammation and inadequate sleep are also potent stimulators of cortisol production.  For example, you may have a low level of anxiety in your life, or you may be getting enough sleep each night, but if you are consuming a diet high in sugar, your cortisol, as well as insulin, levels will be on continuous roller coaster ride.

Another example would be someone who eats a balanced diet, has low levels of anxiety, but has a high degree of inflammation in his or her body. That inflammation is sending signals to secrete the cortisol needed to put out the inflammatory fire.

The specific driver of the cortisol activation may vary from person to person but over time cortisol and DHEA levels will eventually become imbalanced, along with other systems in your body.

Through a process of physical exam, health history, lifestyle and nutritional assessments, as well as lab testing, we can help determine your level of stress or fatigue that you are currently experiencing. By assessing your specific stage of dysfunction we can help you determine specific actions to take to help improve your health. A crucial step is to determine which stressor is affecting your cortisol and get to the “root cause.” This will significantly speed up the time required to restore balance to your stress response system as well as your overall health.