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Tired, Stressed, and Gaining Weight? It Could Be Your Cortisol Levels.

Have you ever wondered why stress wreaks havoc on your body, causing weight gain, mood swings, or sleepless nights? 

The culprit might be cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” While essential for managing stress, cortisol can disrupt your health when its levels are imbalanced. 

Imagine waking up exhausted despite a full night’s sleep or feeling anxious without reason—these are signs of cortisol’s hidden impact. 

Chronic stress or poor habits can cause cortisol to spike or drop at the wrong times, affecting your metabolism, immune system, and overall well-being. 

But there’s hope. 

By understanding cortisol’s role and recognizing imbalance symptoms, you can take steps to restore balance. Let’s talk about how. 

A woman sits on the ground and holds her hand up to her forehead in exhaustion
signs of cortisol imbalance

Understanding What Cortisol Does

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays a vital role in the body’s stress response. It is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it is released in response to stress. 

Cortisol helps the body respond to stress by increasing blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, and increasing metabolism.

In addition to helping the body respond to stress, cortisol also plays a role in blood sugar regulation, circadian rhythm, and immune system function. 

Cortisol Production and Regulation

Cortisol production is regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol into the bloodstream.

Cortisol levels are highest in the morning and gradually decrease throughout the day. 

This diurnal rhythm is important for the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. But cortisol levels can also be affected by stress, illness, and other factors. 

Chronic stress can lead to an imbalance in cortisol levels, which can have negative effects on your body’s metabolism, immune system, and overall health.

Signs of a Cortisol Imbalance

Cortisol imbalances usually happen when your body’s stress response system is out of whack (we’ll dive deeper on this in a minute). 

We’ll explore some common symptoms of cortisol imbalance, but it’s important to note that you’ll need to see a medical doctor and get your hormone levels tested for an official diagnosis. 

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

When your body is under stress, it produces more cortisol. This can lead to symptoms such as:

Symptoms of Low Cortisol Levels

On the other hand, if your body isn’t producing enough cortisol, you may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness when standing up
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Low blood pressure
  • Cravings for salty foods

Want to dive deeper into cortisol levels? This video is an excellent explainer:

How Do They Test for a Cortisol Imbalance?

If you suspect that you have a cortisol imbalance, there are several tests your doctor can perform to confirm your suspicions. 

These include:

  • Cortisol urine test: This test measures the amount of cortisol in your urine over a 24-hour period.
  • Cortisol saliva test: This test measures the amount of cortisol in your saliva at different times throughout the day.
  • Blood test: This test measures the amount of cortisol in your blood at a specific time.

Causes of Cortisol Imbalance

If you are experiencing signs of a cortisol imbalance, it is important to understand the potential causes. We touched on a few of these briefly already, but below are some common factors that can contribute to cortisol imbalances.

Stress and Emotional Factors

Stressful situations, such as work-related pressure, relationship problems, or financial difficulties, can lead to high cortisol levels. 

When you’re stressed, your body activates a system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps you manage and respond to stress. 

Normally, cortisol levels rise in response to stress and then drop back down once the situation is over. But if you’re constantly stressed, your body keeps pumping out cortisol without enough time to recover, leading to chronically high levels.

Poor Sleep Quality

Poor sleep quality disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which plays a crucial role in regulating cortisol levels.

Normally, cortisol follows a daily cycle, peaking in the early morning to help you wake up and gradually decreasing throughout the day. 

When you don’t get enough quality sleep, this cycle gets disturbed, leading to higher cortisol levels at night and lower levels in the morning. 

Over time, this misalignment can cause your body to constantly produce too much cortisol or struggle to produce enough, resulting in a cortisol imbalance. 

This imbalance can make you feel more stressed and tired, creating a vicious cycle that further disrupts sleep and cortisol regulation.

Woman struggles to sleep due to cortisol imbalance

Lack of Physical Activity

Lack of physical activity can contribute to cortisol imbalance by disrupting the body’s ability to manage stress and regulate energy. 

Exercise helps burn off excess cortisol and promotes the release of endorphins, which improve mood and reduce stress

When you’re inactive, your body doesn’t get these benefits, leading to persistently high cortisol levels. 

Over time, chronic inactivity can make your stress response system less efficient, causing your body to either overproduce or underproduce cortisol. 

Hormonal Imbalances

Hormonal imbalances can cause cortisol levels to go off track because hormones in your body often work together and influence each other. 

For instance, thyroid hormones regulate your metabolism and can affect how cortisol is produced and used by your body. If your thyroid is underactive or overactive, it can lead to abnormal cortisol levels. 

Similarly, imbalances in sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone can impact cortisol regulation. When these hormones are out of balance, it can either overstimulate or suppress the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, leading to an imbalance. 

This disruption can contribute to a range of symptoms, from fatigue and mood swings to more serious health issues.

Medications and Treatments

Medications and treatments can disrupt cortisol levels because they often directly or indirectly affect the adrenal glands or the HPA axis, which controls cortisol production. 

For example, corticosteroid medications, commonly prescribed for inflammation and autoimmune conditions, mimic cortisol and can suppress the natural production of this hormone by the adrenal glands. 

Over time, this can lead to low cortisol levels once the medication is stopped. Conversely, some medications for chronic conditions or hormone replacement therapies can increase cortisol production, leading to elevated levels. 

Chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments can also stress the body and disrupt its hormonal balance, further impacting cortisol regulation.

Physical Health Conditions

Physical health conditions can cause cortisol imbalance by directly affecting how your body produces and regulates this important stress hormone. 

Conditions like chronic inflammation, infections, and autoimmune diseases put a constant demand on your body’s resources, prompting it to release more cortisol to manage stress and inflammation. 

Diseases of the adrenal glands, such as Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome, directly alter cortisol production—either significantly reducing it or causing it to be excessively high. 

Additionally, metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity can disrupt the HPA axis, which can also lead to abnormal cortisol levels.

What To Do If You Think You Have A Cortisol Imbalance?

If you suspect you have a cortisol imbalance, here are a few steps to consider:

  • Consult a Healthcare Professional: Start by visiting your doctor or an endocrinologist. They can assess your symptoms and may recommend blood, urine, or saliva tests to measure your cortisol levels at different times of the day.
  • Evaluate Your Lifestyle: Look at your stress levels, sleep patterns, diet, and physical activity. Chronic stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise can contribute to cortisol imbalances. Making positive changes in these areas can help.
  • Consider Stress Management Techniques: Practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can reduce stress and help regulate cortisol levels. And if you’re still struggling, consider getting counseling.
  • Follow Medical Advice: If diagnosed with a cortisol imbalance, follow the treatment plan prescribed by your healthcare provider. This might include medications, lifestyle adjustments, or therapies aimed at balancing hormone levels.
  • Monitor Your Symptoms: Keep track of how you feel and any changes in your symptoms. This can help you and your doctor understand what’s working and if further adjustments are needed.

When it comes to cortisol imbalance, there are several lifestyle changes you can make to have a positive impact. It takes some time, but you can feel better!

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