Make no mistake — cortisol is a lifesaving hormone.
When you are under stress it comes to your rescue, mobilizing carbohydrates and
fat for instant energy. It also keeps our blood sugar steady while we’re sleeping
and helps us wake up in the morning.
But when this “helpful” hormone is over-produced, our bodies suffer.
Cortisol runs unnaturally high as a result of our stress-filled lives, and that
causes all kinds of symptoms and long-term health problems down the road. High cortisol
levels can be deceiving — they allow you to be ultra productive, but at the same
time they rob you of much needed sleep and keep you feeling wired too much of the
Sustained high cortisol levels have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, heart
disease, insulin resistance, obesity and type 2 diabetes. We can now say very clearly:
normalizing cortisol levels is crucial to lifelong health.
Cortisol’s natural rhythm gone wrong
Cortisol has a natural rhythm that is tightly connected to your daily cycle, which
is called your circadian rhythm. Cortisol is usually lowest between midnight and
4:00 AM and then gradually increases until around 8:00 AM, in time for you to wake
up and start the day. After 8:00 AM, cortisol declines incrementally throughout
the day to gradually prepare you for sleep. This daily rhythm is the norm unless
you encounter a stressful event. Your body should increase cortisol and adrenaline
temporarily to handle the stressful event and then return to normal.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Yet when we live in a constant high-alert
state, our cortisol levels remain unnaturally high and can cause all kinds of health
- Impaired healing and cell regeneration
- Disrupted digestion, mental function and metabolism
- Weakened ability to fight infection
- Imbalances in other important hormones such as DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and
- Loss of muscle and bone
- Mood swings and depression
- Hair and skin problems
- Thyroid imbalances
- Low sex drive
- Weight gain (especially around the belly)
How to know if your cortisol is too high
Unfortunately standard tests of adrenal function aren’t very helpful. If your primary
care practitioner calls for a typical laboratory cortisol test, it will be difficult
to see anything more than the most severe cases of adrenal dysfunction, such as
Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome. We recommend finding a practitioner who
is willing to do salivary cortisol testing, which measures cortisol levels
and a hormone called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) throughout the day. This kind
of test provides a more accurate assessment of cortisol levels and whether they
have become imbalanced. We typically suggest testing between 6:00 and 8:00 AM (within
an hour of waking), between 11:00 and Noon, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, and then again
between 10:00 PM and Midnight. This should give you a good overview of how your
cortisol levels vary throughout the day.
But a lab test isn’t necessary to determine if you have adrenal fatigue or high
cortisol. You can simply check in with how you feel. If your energy level is very
low in the morning but seems to increase right around the time everyone else is
getting ready for bed, your cortisol cycle is probably out of whack. It’s a good
indication that you will reap huge benefits by taking steps to rebalance your adrenal
You can’t restore healthy adrenal function without balancing cortisol
Cortisol levels that remain high often lead to a downward health spiral, where you
go from feeling wired to feeling tired and wired, and then ultimately to feeling
exhausted. This final stage of adrenal imbalance is known as adrenal exhaustion.
Restoring your cortisol to its natural levels is the only way to regain adrenal
Women have used our Adrenal Health Program to help normalize their cortisol levels
naturally. Doing so will eliminate symptoms, increase energy (without feeling “wired”)
and encourage better sleep. And you can balance cortisol in several ways, including
taking adrenal-supportive herbs and nutrients, and making dietary changes and lifestyle
modifications to calm the stress response. Read more about our method in our
natural approach to adrenal health article.