As a Naturopathic Doctor I work with patients on a wide variety of concerns from chronic pain to cancer to diabetes or IBS. But regardless of the presenting symptom, there is one hormone that underlies much of what I recommend and the questions I ask. That hormone is cortisol. Sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone”, cortisol is released from your small adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys. Cortisol is released in response to our daily circadian rhythms – ideally peaking first thing in the morning and lowering as we prepare for and fall into sleep. This is “ideal” because cortisol triggers metabolic activities that help us be active during our day and which are not necessary (even counter-productive) at night. In addition to influencing metabolism, it also acts as our body’s own steroid. In other words, if you have ever tried to lose weight or have wondered why you get sick so frequently or have struggled with insomnia or have a lot of trouble getting out of bed in the morning, then you may want to look more closely at what your cortisol is doing.
Cortisol testing is something I frequently recommend to look at how a patient’s daily cycle of this hormone is behaving. The reason for this need to take a peek is that for so many of us, the stress of our everyday lives has messed with the ideal rhythm of cortisol’s release. While we are resilient beings with the adaptive mechanisms to deal with stressful situations from time to time, our adrenal glands were not necessarily prepared to deal with more constant assaults of stress; stressful periods that sometimes last for years and years. Whether it’s work or family or what we see on the news, too many heart-racing episodes can start to override our body’s own circadian patterns and we may find our sleep and overall health suffering as a consequence.
While testing is the best way to illuminate your individual cortisol patterns, the best thing we can all do to counter-act these effects of stress is to incorporate a mindfulness practice into our daily routine. Especially if stress is a daily phenomenon for you, your brain (which talks to your adrenal glands) needs to take a break and to be reminded that we are safe and secure in this moment. Meditation or deep breathing is the simplest way to support the regulation of your internal response to daily stressors and thereby keep your cortisol levels from getting too high.
Of course sleep is also relaxing and thereby helps to regulate cortisol levels but poor sleep is a common complaint of those whose cortisol curve has gone askew. The beauty of naturopathic medicine is that there are many tools to help normalize the cortisol curve. Adaptogenic herbs are ones which help the body properly process with the metabolic effects of stress and certain vitamins and supplements can help discourage the adrenal glands from over-secretion of this stress hormone. Two that are safe for most people to incorporate into their daily routine are fish oil and a B complex. Fish oil may be particularly helpful for those who have very high cortisol levels. But here again is the catch. While long-term stress initially manifests as high levels of cortisol output, over time, your levels may drop. This is why testing is helpful: to see your curve in relationship to your individual stresses.
We all know that stress wears us down but we don’t always think about how stress’ favorite hormone is doing. Considering cortisol’s curve may be a helpful preventative measure before stress causes other health problems down the road.