How To Take care of your cortisol

Taking care of your cortisol is the best way to ensure you do not develop diseases. Understanding how cortisol works in relation to the sun-light cycles is paramount. We are the great adapters, but humans can only adapt until we can’t. Measuring cortisol before things get bad is important. Often people only seek help when work suffers, excess fatigue, migraines, or cognition becomes cloudy. The goal is to know your cortisol levels before this happens.

Although changing, most of medicine recognizes two extremes of cortisol problems, either the body secretes virtually no cortisol which is called Addison’s disease (JFK was famously diagnosed with this) or the body secretes way too much cortisol which is called Cushing’s disease. Adrenal insufficiency is not recognized as a disease process which is the reason when you ask about you adrenals, the answer you get 99% of the time, is that your adrenals are functioning normal. While it is true your adrenal glands are functioning, but not normally.

Back to the reticular activating system, when we perceive stress, the RAS sends a signal to a place called the locus coeruleus and norepinephrine is secreted. Norepinephrine acts as a neurotransmitter signal to the hypothalamus which eventually sends a signal to the pituitary gland which sends a signal to the adrenal gland to produce cortisol. When we are unable to produce the cortisol needed for the stress response, we lose that buffer. Norepinephrine does many things in the body such as increase heart rate and blood pressure. It also causes anxiety alerting you to something is abnormal. When cortisol is not secreted in adequate amounts, you get an overabundance of norepinephrine stimulation. This over stimulation shows itself as increased heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. Basically, a high stress state. If you have ever met someone who is stressed and doesn’t know why, this is likely what is happening.

Fit but unhealthy

In today’s society where we all strive to be physically fit, especially during these COVID-19 times, everyone is exercising. Realize that this was not always the case, it is only in this century that humans started to exercise daily. People who perform a lot of endurance sports such as running marathons are at risk of decreasing their cortisol reserve. A Dutch study in men over 50-years-old who ran marathons all had lower cholesterol, body fat, normal sugar, better blood pressure, but they had more heart attacks than men who did not run marathons. How could this be? For one, marathon training, especially constant pace training is very stressful to the body. Cognitive changes occur often in people who perform chronic endurance exercise. In part, they have a dysregulation of cortisol. Basically, cortisol stops increasing appropriately to the positive stressor of running. It is important to know how to exercise in a healthy manner. This is why athletes need salivary cortisol testing. If you are an over trained athlete, you will not have an adequate cortisol reserve. The whole goal of having a normal cortisol response is to be able to recover properly.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic is another good example of how a cortisol surge can be deadly. It is well known that the heart cells called myocytes are adversely affected by the Coronavirus, and there are many cases of heart attacks associated with COVID-19. The abnormal production (or lack thereof) of cortisol and other hormones like testosterone affects the body and may over stress the heart leading to a heart attack.

Cortisol interacts with many other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and insulin. A case in point is that a lot of people struggle with fat loss for a variety of reasons. Insulin reacts with cortisol. An easy way to keep insulin low is to eat less carbohydrates, especially for when you first break your fast, which is usually in the mornings. Eating eggs and bacon is one thing, having donuts with a sugar loaded coffee drink is quite another. High insulin levels plus high cortisol levels drive the body to store fat in the face of a high glucose load.