Adrenal Fatigue and Cortisol Supplements Part 1
Adrenal fatigue, caused by various physiological and/or psychological stress factors, affects the adrenal glands’ production of cortisol. Looking at this scenario, one might think that cortisol supplements are the answer. If the body has a shortage in a certain hormone, like cortisol, conventional medicine simply employs a medication to increase the body’s stores. Would that solve the problem?
But what if the problem was not a shortage, but the exact opposite? What if there was too much cortisol? Would popping a pill simply lower the hormonal level?
The answer is complex, because a dysfunction in the body has a domino effect, impacting other functions as well.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol, often referred to as the body’s primary ‘stress hormone’, is manufactured in the adrenal glands. It plays a significant role in managing any stressful situation the body may experience, but it is more than that. It actually helps balance hormones. Cortisol secretion is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
The majority of cells in the body have cortisol receptors, allowing cortisol to influence their functionality in one way or the other. Because cortisol helps keep the body in a state of life-sustaining balance, it is often referred to as the ‘alpha hormone’. Its three main functions are regulating inflammation in the body, increasing blood pressure, and raising blood sugar levels. Additionally, it supports a fetus during pregnancy, and helps control the salt and water balance in the body.
A few of the life-sustaining processes modulated by cortisol are:
- Mood and behavior
- Sleeping patterns
- Physical activities
The Role of Cortisol in the Body
Normally, your cortisol production is higher in the morning. This higher level gives you a feeling of alertness. You are ready to conquer the world and able to face all the challenges the day presents. Your cortisol production then tends to taper off as the day goes by, until, at bedtime, it is superseded by the production of melatonin. Melatonin gives you a feeling of restfulness and ensures a good night’s sleep.
When under stress, however, whether physiological or psychological, a different scenario occurs. The HPA axis works to control the situation. It takes charge. The hypothalamus in the brain, when perceiving stress, sends a signal to the master endocrine gland, namely, the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland secretes the hormone ACTH, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. At the same time, the adrenals produce other hormones such as adrenaline to prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’ mode, a natural reaction to any perceived ‘dangerous’ situation.
Cortisol’s function now comes into play. Glucose levels go up so that your muscles have the energy they need to either run or fight. Blood pressure increases, increasing oxygen levels to the brain, so that you can think clearly while engaged in the stressful situation.
At the same time, those functions that are less necessary for immediate survival are suppressed. These include your immune system, libido, and digestive system. The focus is only on the bodily functions necessary for survival. Although the increase in certain functions and the decrease in others works positively for immediate survival, there are also negative consequences. This is especially true if high cortisol levels persist over a prolonged period.
Once the stressful situation is over, the hypothalamus stops the alarm, and all functions return back to their normal state. However, in prolonged stressful situations, this doesn’t always occur properly. Constant stress, or even increased stress levels, has a negative effect on the body’s normal cortisol production.
Adrenal Fatigue and the Body’s Automatic Response
As the body goes through the initial stages of adrenal fatigue, the first call of duty is to produce more cortisol to enable it to cope. However, if the problem persists, the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue increase in both number and severity. These symptoms include brain fog, heart palpitations, anxiety, panic attacks, low libido, food sensitivities, and even a hypersensitivity to cortisol supplements and medications.
The body responds to the adrenal glands being unable to produce sufficient cortisol by finding other avenues for producing the needed hormones. These include body organs and glands.
Once the body gets to the fourth and last stage of adrenal gland fatigue, however, the body’s systems start shutting down. Symptoms associated with this stage include memory loss, weight gain, worsening skin conditions, digestive problems, depression, heart disease, and sleeping problems. Once this stage is reached, the path to recovery is a long and laborious one.
Too much cortisol, just like too little, has a negative impact on the body.
Cortisol Supplements to Combat Low Cortisol Levels
Traditionally, low cortisol levels are managed by means of supplementation. This is usually with synthetic cortisol called prednisone or natural cortisol called hydrocortisone. These cortisol supplements are usually taken orally.
However, these cortisol supplements have their own dangers.
Those on cortisol supplements must track their cortisol levels. The aim is to emulate the natural cortisol progression throughout the day, and supplements need to be adjusted accordingly. Under normal conditions, cortisol concentrations are higher in the mornings than the evenings, and supplementation is geared towards achieving the same effect.
Cortisol supplements however, should only be considered when there are few alternatives left, for example, in cases of tuberculosis or Addison’s disease. Western medicine also uses them for psoriasis, certain cancers, and inflammation. This is because synthetic cortisol supplements, when administered over a long period, have a negative effect on the body’s own cortisol production.
The negative side effects of cortisol supplements include:
- Thinning of skin
- Thinning of limbs
- Build-up of fat in the chest area, face, and abdomen
- Increase in blood pressure
- Reduction in the body’s ability to produce natural cortisol
Rather than summarily using cortisol supplements, there is a natural approach to addressing lower cortisol levels in the body. This approach is holistic, seeking the root cause of the problem and changing certain aspects of lifestyle and diet to help the adrenals put out more cortisol on their own. That way, the body’s regulatory feedback loops remain intact. These changes are introduced over a period of time, and typically include changing eating habits, dealing with stressors, examining exercise routines, and using non-cortisol supplements that aid in the body’s natural production and regulation of cortisol.
Dangers of High Levels of Cortisol
Constant synthetic cortisol supplements, as utilized by western medicine, could ultimately lead to high levels of cortisol in the body and their associated effects. Consistently elevated cortisol levels have a devastating effect on the body.
Adrenal fatigue is one condition that may be caused by elevated cortisol levels due to stress. Many negative symptoms normally associated with adrenal fatigue are caused by consistently elevated cortisol levels.
Cortisol is necessary for the body to cope in stressful situations, but consistently high levels of this hormone have a devastating impact on the body over the long term. It slows down cell regeneration and the healing process, destroys healthy bone and muscle tissue, monopolizes chemicals the body needs to produce other hormones vital to the body’s function, and weakens the immune system. In other words, too much of something needed to preserve life ends up destroying it.
Cushing’s syndrome is an illness associated with consistently high cortisol levels. It is either the result of the body continuously producing too much cortisol, or due to the long-term use of cortisol supplements.
Symptoms Associated with Too Much Cortisol
The general symptoms that are typically associated with constantly elevated cortisol levels include:
- A flushed face
- Skin problems such as stretch marks and bruising
- Consistently elevated blood pressure
- Weak muscles
- Rapid weight gain, usually in the face, abdomen, and chest area, with thinner arms and legs in relation to the body
- Constant or increased thirst
- A tendency to urinate more often
- Increase in mood swings associated with depression, irritability, and constant anxiety
- Constant tiredness
- Salt cravings
- Morning illness such as stomachache
If you suffer from a few of these symptoms, it is a good idea to have your cortisol levels tested by your doctor. These tests should be done after a period of fasting, so early morning, twenty minutes after waking up, is usually the best time to do so. This is because your cortisol levels are at their highest at this time. The 24-hour cortisol test is an even better option, as it supplies information on your cortisol levels for the duration of an entire day. Most practitioners of natural medicine can do this test for you.
Causes of High Cortisol Levels
Although it is normal for cortisol levels to fluctuate during the day, there are a number of reasons why levels may be consistently high. These include:
- Adrenal gland disorders
- Use of birth control pills
- Surgery, injury, or illness
- Kidney problems
- Liver dysfunction
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Use of synthetic cortisol supplements
© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.