Adrenal Fatigue - Excessive Stress & Cortisol Control
The human body is designed to cope with stress when it needs to. Stress can be a good thing, keeping you alert and helping you respond quickly to immediate danger. Cortisol, the major hormone responsible for the body's stress response, is even an essential part of workout recovery.
Stress becomes a bad thing when there’s no relief from it. When life becomes a continual string of stressor after stressor, the body’s “fight or flight” response never turns off. That's when stress-related symptoms start to appear, as a prolonged stress response wears on you both physically and psychologically. But when does high cortisol become too much? And how do you know your levels are too high?
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a naturally-occurring hormone in the body, so it's not bad in and of itself. Still, it's definitely known to cause problems.
Why You Need Some Cortisol
Having too little cortisol can actually be a dangerous condition. Extremely low levels can be life-threatening. Low cortisol levels may cause dizziness, muscle weakness, skin changes, and mood swings [source].
The Danger of Too Much Cortisol
Your body is equipped to handle a cortisol spike and recover from it afterward if your adrenal glands are balanced and healthy. Constantly high levels of cortisol, however, will perpetuate a state of imbalance and start to take a toll on your health. Since excessive cortisol causes glucose production, high blood sugar levels over time can cause insulin resistance [source]. Chronic stress has been linked to chronic inflammation, which is a risk factor in many chronic diseases, from diabetes to cancer [source].
How Cortisol Works in the Body
Cortisol, also known as hydrocortisone, is a steroid hormone your body synthesizes in the adrenal glands. Once produced, the cortisol releases into your bloodstream, acting upon cells that have a glucocorticoid receptor (GR), which includes virtually every type of cell in your body [source].
Cortisol and Your Adrenal Glands
While a certain amount of cortisol is required, there are times when a cortisol spike occurs in response to a stressor. When this happens, your adrenal glands that sit on top of your kidneys rapidly produce and secrete cortisol, as well as adrenaline. The adrenaline, another stress hormone, raises your heart rate and blood pressure, giving you the feeling of an "adrenaline rush."
Effects of Cortisol
Cortisol is the main stress hormone that plays a role in the stress response. It raises your blood glucose, improves your brain's utilization of glucose, and boosts the availability of molecules involved in tissue repair. It also blocks nonessential functions, causing the immune, digestive, reproductive, and growth processes to be put "on the back burner." In effect, your energy is directed into the "fight or flight" response, which is supposed to be a rare event in your life that causes you to feel fear.
Signs Your Cortisol is Too High
Having hormone imbalance characterized by high cortisol levels can cause various symptoms to manifest. They can include:
- Increased thirst and frequency of urination
- Mood swings, restlessness, and irritability
- Frequent headaches
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering
Over the long-term high cortisol levels can lead to a number of physical and psychological conditions, such as:
- Mood disorders, including depression and anxiety
- Cushing syndrome, which causes symptoms like easy bruising and weight gain in your face and midsection while the arms and legs slim down [source]
- Amenorrhea in women, or irregular periods
Natural Ways to Lower Cortisol
In most cases, you can lower high cortisol levels at home by taking the right steps to regulate your hormones. Here's what we recommend:
Make Diet Changes
Caffeine and sugar cause an uptick in cortisol levels. While caffeine is often viewed as a testosterone booster to improve muscle gains, research on the effects of caffeine on cortisol shows that it may not be worth it. In a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, caffeine increased testosterone by just a small amount while elevating cortisol by as much as 54%.
Besides reducing your caffeine intake, you can also cut simple sugars from your diet. They raise your blood sugar levels, which also causes cortisol to rise [source].
Lower Your Activity Level
It's important to have off days and let your body fully recover before training again. Over-training results in elevated cortisol levels because your body is relying on adrenaline and cortisol to perform. If you give your muscles the time they need to recuperate, you can see better performance and faster gains in your workouts.
A direct way to balance your hormones is to use supplements that have a hormone-modulating effect.
Natural substances like green tea, as well as minerals like calcium and phosphatidylserine, have a natural effect of regulating hormones like cortisol. For example, MTS Nutrition Tyrant is an all-natural supplement made for controlling and regulating cortisol. With over 1,000 mg of active ingredients per dose, MTS Tyrant also controls estrogen levels and helps maximize overall health.
Keeping Stress in Check
Whether it's cortisol, estrogen, or any other hormone, it's important they stay within the normal range. An endocrinologist can check your hormone levels and tell you if they're normal or high.
In some cases, high cortisol levels are the result of a tumor on the pituitary gland secreting cortisol [source]. This requires testing with a blood sample from the petrosal sinuses, which drain the pituitary gland on either side of your skull. Checking your cortisol status and ruling out potential conditions can help you move forward in establishing your best workout and recovery regimen.