A Crash Course on Cortisol

Cortisol has been in the hot seat lately! There’s been a lot of conversation about how to avoid cortisol spikes or lower your over cortisol levels which ultimately makes it seem like the bad guy. To top it off, it’s nicknamed the stress hormone which definitely isn’t helping its case. While we don’t want cortisol to be over produced, it is actually a very beneficial and vital hormone. I studied cortisol for months in my practitioner course, so I could talk about it for quite some time, but I’m going to give you a quick crash course with everything you need to know! 

To start off, is cortisol really our stress hormone? Yes, but I want to make it clear that even the most laid back person who is living a completely stress-free life still produces cortisol on a daily basis. We need cortisol! It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and helps us focus during our work day. It even acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller when we have biochemical stress occurring in the body. With that being said, while we don’t want low cortisol, we most definitely don’t want excess cortisol. (The more you learn about functional medicine, the more you’ll realize that everything is about restoring and maintaining balance in the body!!) The key is making sure our cortisol levels follow the diurnal pattern of our circadian rhythm, meaning they are highest in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day. The higher cortisol in the morning wakes us up and gets us going. As cortisol decreases, eventually melatonin levels will rise which is what gets us tired and ready for bed. If cortisol doesn’t follow this ideal pattern of being highest in the morning, gradually decreasing throughout the day, and being lowest at night, we can experience a lot of symptoms such as energy dips, fatigue, insomnia, and pure lack of motivation. 

If we experience excess cortisol or cortisol spikes, it can severely mess with this optimal, diurnal circadian pattern we’re striving for. Excess cortisol is most commonly driven by stress and can have a very negative impact on the body. The way I like to describe it is that cortisol is a hormone that’s focused on the outside world. Its priority is our survival, so it will do what it needs to in order to keep our body functioning, even if that involves deprioritizing “non-essential” processes. For example, let’s say you’re experiencing a stressful day at work. You’ve got deadlines and things going wrong left and right. This is going to ramp up cortisol, which tells your body that you’ve got things going on that you need to deal with in the outside world, so that’s where it’s energy needs to go. Because your body is putting its energy towards getting through the stressful situation, it’s not concerned with processes like proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and detoxification. This is why stress alone can cause digestion issues! 

Additionally, cortisol is a catabolic hormone meaning it breaks the body down. For example, it will break parts of your body down like fat, tissues, and even muscle for quick energy which will also increase our blood sugar levels. We know that blood sugar dysregulation can lead to a number of different health issues, so it’s important we focus on stabilizing our blood sugar through both proper macronutrient consumption and stress management. 

To put that all together for you, chronic stress can cause overproduction of cortisol and cortisol spikes, which can then deprioritize functions in the body that are not needed for survival, like optimal digestion. These cortisol spikes can also cause blood sugar dysregulation which can cause things like fatigue, weight gain and anxiety. It’s REALLY important to ensure our cortisol levels are within the optimal range. So what can you do?

  1. Focus on managing your stress levels. What mindfulness practices can you implement into your day? How can you get rid of specific stressors in your life? How can you change your perception around stressful situations? SO much of our health revolves around our mindset. 
  2. I highly recommend functional lab testing to check in on your cortisol levels! The best way to check them is through a urine or saliva test. 

If you’re interested in testing your cortisol levels, reach out to me and we can find the best route for you!!