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If you’re feeling constantly stressed, fatigued, experiencing sleep issues, or frequent colds; rebalancing your cortisol levels could be the key to restoring your well-being. While lifestyle changes and dietary adjustments can often help, it’s crucial to first rule out other potential serious causes.  Consulting with a naturopathic doctor can help determine the underlying issue and guide you on the best course of action. Don’t let imbalanced cortisol hold you back from feeling your best – take steps today to regain balance and vitality.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney, and is part of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is an intricate part of the nervous system that connects our brain, the central nervous system, to our endocrine system, which is responsible for hormones and their production. The HPA axis serves as a crucial indicator of our body’s response to stress and plays an important role in the sleep-wake cycle, metabolic regulation, immune function, and the stress response.

In normal, low-stress situations, the HPA axis follows a circadian rhythm, with cortisol levels peaking shortly after waking and gradually declining as the day progresses. When cortisol levels are balanced, one should feel alert in the morning and ready to tackle the day. This peak in cortisol begins to mobilize energy stores such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, providing energy and nutrients for the body to start the day. As evening comes, cortisol begins to decline, while the sleep hormone, melatonin, steadily increases. Decreasing cortisol levels promote relaxation, and the mind is no longer alert, prepping the body for sleep.

During times of acute stress, the hypothalamus swiftly activates, setting off a cascade of events in the HPA axis, leading to the release of cortisol, which mobilizes fats, temporarily suppresses appetite, and focuses our attention to help us confront the stressor. Enjoyable activities such as working out, competing on a sports team, enjoying a busy yet fun weekend with friends, preparing for a presentation, or getting through a busy work week can also be stressors. Ever wondered why you never get sick during but after these events? This is due to cortisol’s complex role in temporarily suppressing and enhancing certain aspects of the immune system. During acute stress, cortisol can enhance the release of neutrophils, the immune system’s most abundant white blood cell, which are among the first responders to infection or inflammation. This can help contain the spread of pathogens and keep one from getting sick during times of stress. Cortisol can also suppress the production of inflammatory molecules, which can help prevent excessive inflammation that can be harmful to the body. While it enhances the first responding cells, cortisol temporarily suppresses other white blood cells, particularly T cells and B cells. These cells can cause more damage and inflammation if left unchecked, therefore its suppression is beneficial in the short term. If cortisol continues to stay elevated this will disrupt immune regulation, leading to heightened inflammation, an immune system that is overly active or low functioning, leading to frequent colds and recurrent infections.

Prolonged exposure to stress leads to not only elevated cortisol but other hormones, which can lead to sleep disruption, insulin resistance, weight gain, immune system issues, and fatigue. Sleep may be the first area that most people feel is affected by a cortisol imbalance. While cortisol levels should decline in the evening, chronic stress can lead to its elevation in the evening, feeling “tired but wired,” or having a “second wind,” making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. In the mornings, cortisol may not peak as high leading to lower energy, more grogginess, and energy dips in the afternoon. Once cortisol becomes imbalanced so does metabolism. Cortisol plays a crucial role in regulating energy metabolism, mobilizing glucose, and other nutrients to fuel the body. Consistently high or spiking cortisol levels can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels. As a result, the body’s ability to effectively use glucose for energy is impaired, leading to elevated blood sugar levels. This can trigger increased production of insulin by the pancreas, eventually leading to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen (aka a muffin top). Prolonged insulin resistance can lead to several health conditions, including: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, dyslipidemia (high triglyceride levels, low HDL, high LDL), increased overall inflammation in the body, and increased cancer risk. Therefore, managing chronic stress and maintaining healthy cortisol levels is essential for supporting metabolic health and preventing weight gain associated with insulin resistance.

Cortisol is a vital hormone that plays a role in several physiological processes. While often portrayed as the “villain” due to its association with chronic stress, it is important in how the body responds to stress, regulating processes such as the sleep-wake cycle, metabolic function, and immune response. Healthy cortisol levels follow a diurnal rhythm, keeping us alert throughout the day and playing a role in blood sugar regulation and the immune response. However, chronic stress can lead to imbalances in cortisol levels, disrupting sleep, metabolism, and immune function, potentially contributing to various health issues. Understanding the intricate role of cortisol in the body’s stress response is crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being.

Disclaimer: This is for educational purposes only. Persisting fatigue, insomnia, low immune function, night sweats, cravings etc should always be worked up by a physician to rule out other serious diseases or conditions.

Kyla Stewart

About Kyla Stewart

Dr. Kyla Stewart is a Naturopathic Doctor providing patient care in Kelowna, BC. She has a practice focus in naturopathic oncology, digestion and women's health.