The Role of Cortisol in Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

CortisolChronic stress affects over a quarter of all Britons and if you find yourself feeling wired, tired, or wired and tired at the same time, it’s likely that you are one of the many people suffering from adrenal fatigue. The hectic lifestyle that so many of us lead often requires juggling work demands, family obligations, and financial worries on a daily basis. This constant tension and anxiety triggers the body’s stress response all day long and leads to increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, making you feel wired and putting an excessive strain on your physical health and well-being. After prolonged periods of being in this condition, the body can no longer produce adequate levels of cortisol and instead leaves you feeling tired and moody all the time. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s possible that you may be in a state of adrenal fatigue. Here is an explanation of cortisol’s role in the body, the symptoms associated with the different stages of adrenal fatigue, and how it affects you.

What is Cortisol’s Function in the Body?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is synthesized from cholesterol in the adrenal glands which are located on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is typically released in response to stressful situations and its purpose is to shut down certain non-vital functions in the body in order to help you react quickly in a life-or-death situation. It does this by temporarily raising blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system’s responses, helping to metabolize macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates), and even slowing bone formation. This is a highly developed survival mechanism that evolved in humans to help us avoid immediate danger. Most of us are fortunate enough to rarely encounter life-threatening situations on a regular basis, if at all, but a demanding lifestyle that exposes you to stressors all day long means the body feels as though it is constantly under threat. This “fight or flight” response was never intended to last in the long-term and prolonged periods of elevated cortisol can cause significant damage to your health.

The Early Stages of Adrenal Fatigue 

The initial stages of adrenal fatigue are caused by consistently elevated cortisol levels and during this phase you may feel wired, anxious, and have trouble sleeping. Cortisol levels normally fluctuate throughout the day and one of its functions is to help you wake up in the morning (when its levels are highest) and to help you relax at night (when levels drop). If your body’s cortisol levels no longer naturally rise and fall as they should, you may find yourself feeling tired all the time, but unable to get a restful night’s sleep.

Elevated cortisol levels also have widespread effects on your health beyond your moods and energy levels. It weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. Cortisol also suppresses inflammation which is a crucial response in the body’s ability to repair itself and may mean that wounds and infections take longer to heal. Since cortisol is designed to raise blood sugar levels temporarily, when its levels are consistently high it can cause insulin resistance which can eventually lead to Type II diabetes. Long-term exposure of the hippocampus to cortisol can affect cognitive abilities and result in poor memory and learning capabilities, causing the characteristic “brain fog” symptom that many people with adrenal fatigue experience.

As your body struggles to continue meeting the demand of such high levels of cortisol it may begin to use the precursor hormone pregnenolone to synthesize more cortisol at the expense of producing many other important hormones including all of the sex hormones, a process sometimes known as “pregnenolone steal”. This exacerbates the body’s hormone imbalances and you may begin to experience additional symptoms such as a low sex drive and menstrual irregularity.

The Later Stages of Adrenal Fatigue

After an extended amount of time in this state of chronic stress, the adrenal glands can no longer keep up the demand to produce such high levels of cortisol and will move into the “burnout” phase. As a result, the body then suffers from chronically low levels of cortisol, resulting in constant fatigue, brain fog, and irritability. Your energy levels will be very low and you’ll have trouble concentrating. You may experience weight changes, chronic inflammation, low blood pressure, and low blood sugar now that your body lacks the cortisol it needs to regulate these processes. You may feel fatigued after consuming a large meal, crave foods that are high in fat and sugar, become dependent on caffeine, and be more susceptible to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

How Can You Test for Adrenal Fatigue?

Fortunately, adrenal fatigue can be easily diagnosed through blood or saliva tests of the body’s cortisol levels along with a comprehensive evaluation by your doctor. Most people who have adrenal fatigue seek help in the early to middle stages where it is treatable. Managing stress in your life is an important aspect of maintaining your health and can have far-reaching benefits. If you’d like to learn more about how you can treat your symptoms of adrenal fatigue and learn effective stress management, contact Dr. Allie today.

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