Cortisol is commonly referred to as the stress hormone. Cortisol has its influence in almost everything and most of it seems bad. Take a moment and view this chart that Dr. Kharrazian put together to show cortisol’s impact. Do you suspect having an aliment listed on that chart? Your suspicions are probably correct. It is easy to believe that stress is the cause of all illness.
When asked to consider their cortisol levels, most individuals use their perception of stress to evaluate the answer, and it is almost always assumed to be too high. Go ahead and ask yourself, "Is your cortisol level too high, too low, or just right?" Honestly, I have never had a patient say to me that they think their cortisol levels are too low.
What makes the determination of your level of cortisol difficult to assess is the amount secreted by your adrenals are tied to a circadian rhythm which varies through out the day. So in other words, your cortisol level is a moving target. Very often your level of cortisol could be too high and too low, all within the same day. In extreme situations of high or low levels of cortisol, the outcome paints a clearer picture of what’s going on. Cushing’s disease is associated with very high levels, and Addison's disease is associated with very low levels. These are serious illnesses and you would already know if you have either of these diseases due to their dramatic symptomatology. So thankfully, most of you will fall somewhere in between.
Notice in the chart, the center block says elevated cortisol? The reason is because when responding to stress, the adrenals will first increase it’s output of cortisol. For many people, cortisol will stay elevated for years, eventually leading to the point of adrenal exhaustion. With adrenal fatigue there is not enough cortisol output to meet the needs. To make matters worse, chronic over-exposure to cortisol causes the cells to become less sensitive and less responsive to cortisol. For these reasons, it is really difficult to know if the adrenals need to be stimulated or calmed down. And this is where most nutritionist's get hung up, trying to answer that question.... because it is the wrong question to be asking. More on that later.
Because cortisol is produced by the adrenals, by virtue of association, the adrenals get blamed for many health disorders. In fact, many nutritional supplement manufacturers will tell you that their top selling product is their adrenal formula. Look at their ingredients; most will include various “adaptogenic” herbs. Adaptogenic herbs have the ability to adapt to a situation and support the adrenals toward balance. In theory, you can give an adaptogenic herb to a stressed out or burned out adrenal gland. This method of nutritional healthcare has become popular because it seems easy to just provide adaptogens and everything will work out. But due to the lack of precision, the therapeutic benefit is only marginal. A far better approach is to not treat the adrenals directly, but rather indirectly. The real question is, what is stressing my adrenals?
Unless you have Addison's or Cushing's disease, the adrenal glands are rarely the primary problem. The are constantly responding to physical, chemical, and/or mental/emotional stress. This could be an infection, chronic pain, emotional suffering, or a combination of nutritional deficiencies and metabolic imbalances. And by far the most common stress assaulting the adrenals is blood sugar imbalance. I know that does not seem earth shattering and probably boring by now. But the most common health issue effecting most individuals is their relationship to insulin. Go back to the chart and follow
elevated coritsol down and to the left and there is the elephant in the room. Insulin resistance is directly related to what we eat, and responsible for most chronic disease.
The best way to control blood sugar is by combining the food groups properly. If your meal does not accomplish that balance, you will force your hormonal and nervous system to step in. They will get the job done, but with lots of collateral damage. If your meal raises blood sugar, your parasympathetics (PNS) will stimulate the pancreas to put out extra insulin. Do this enough times and it creates insulin resistance. If you skip meals or eat a meal that causes reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) will stimulate the adrenals to put out adrenaline with cortisol to increase blood sugar. Over time, consistent elevated cortisol creates disease as seen on the chart.
I suggest beginning to observe how you feel and try to relate it to cortisol, blood sugar, and adrenaline. For example, "How well do you sleep?" If you have a hard time falling to sleep, you probably have high cortisol in the evenings. If you fall asleep quickly but cannot stay asleep, you probably have cortisol dropping too low while you sleep, and this is stimulating your SNS to put out untimely adrenaline.
There is so much more to talk about on this subject, but I cannot seem to wrap it up and feel complete. My intent is not to give you more to worry about. So, if you have taken the time to read this far into the article, I have a gift for you that will save me from having to finish this article. Mention that you read this article, and that you would like to have your PNS and SNS checked. These are the two primary drivers of your adrenals. I will perform a series of blood pressure and pulse challenges to evaluate their balance. There will be no cost for this evaluation.