The adrenals are two tiny glands positioned on top of your kidneys. The adrenals produce adrenaline-like hormones, as well as the hormone, cortisol. Cortisol regulates many different metabolic functions in the body; it's responsible for maintaining cognitive functions in the brain, balancing blood-sugar levels, and managing electrolyte balance.
The adrenal cortex secretes cortisol as a response to elevated levels of environmental and mental stress, which is why it’s also known as “the stress hormone.” When cortisol levels in the blood are too high, a condition called hypercortisolism, or Cushing’s syndrome, develops. Too much cortisol in the blood elevates stress levels to the point where physiological and psychological disorders may develop in otherwise healthy people.
Treating the symptoms of hypercortisolism requires a visit to your physician for a blood test and diagnosis of the condition. Your medical professional will analyze your cortisol levels and recommend a course of treatment to restore hormonal balance to your system. If you recognize any of the following symptoms listed below, especially if you are experiencing a combination of symptoms, consult with your healthcare provider immediately.
1. Insomnia and Fatigue
The most common symptom of hypercortisolism of Cushing’s syndrome is fatigue and insomnia. The body requires cortisol for ATP production, the source of biological energy. When the adrenal cortex is overly-stimulated due to excessive stress levels, the results are counterproductive for the mind and body.
Normal adrenal function, produces peak cortisol levels in the early morning, with the production of the hormone tapering off as the day progresses. People who are living with hypercortisolism or Cushing’s experience an over-loading of the adrenal cortex due to stress.
This effect results in a reverse of cortisol production, with levels of the hormone rising at night. The constant production of cortisol by the glands results in over-stimulation of the body and brain. As a result, anyone living with hypercortisolism is left feeling exhausted during the day.
As cortisol production peaks at night, the body and mind struggle to fall asleep, resulting in bouts of insomnia that create a negative feedback loop between the brain and adrenal glands. The more tired you feel during the day, the more cortisol released, further exasperating symptoms of insomnia and fatigue.
2. Sudden Weight Gain
Another common symptom of hypercortisolism or Cushing’s syndrome is an unexpected, sudden gain in body weight, especially in the upper-body. Excess cortisol production causes the body to hold more intra-cellular water, giving a bloated and puffy appearance to the face, chest, arms, and abdomen.
Wild swings in hormonal balance also affect your appetite. The body may excrete excess ghrelin (the hunger hormone) as the hypercortisolism progresses. This rise in ghrelin creates cravings for salty, sugary, and fatty foods that you wouldn’t usually eat. If you find yourself binging on junk food, it could be a sign of excess cortisol in your blood.
3. Skin Disorders
Excessive cortisol levels in the body affect the epidermis as well. The skin is the largest organ in the body and its predisposed to the effects of over-production of cortisol. Since you can see your skin, but you can’t see your internal organs, it provides a good indicator of hypercortisolism.
Excess cortisol production creates a thinning of the skin resulting in a dry, shiny, flaky appearance. The skin tears easily under environmental stress or exercise related activity. You may also notice that you begin to bruise easily and the skin takes longer than average to repair the damage. Cortisol breaks down the dermal proteins and weakens the walls of blood vessels, predisposing them to injury.Hypercortisolism reduces immune function, increasing the susceptibility of the skin to infection and disorders such as psoriasis and eczema. You may also notice large spots appearing on the face, shoulders, or chest. Edema caused by hypercortisolism swells the skin around the ankles and wrists and may last for days or weeks before dissipating.
4. Musculoskeletal Issues
Hypercortisolism also affects the muscular and skeletal systems as well. Increased cortisol weakens bones, exposing you to risk of fractures and breaks from falls or other accidents. Hypercortisolism depletes minerals like calcium and potassium, two critical minerals responsible for the health of your bones and muscular contractions.
The ribs and spine are the two most frequently injured areas for those living with hypercortisolism. It’s common for breaks or fractures to be accompanied by the bruising or tearing of the skin as described above. Broken ribs are especially dangerous as they could pierce and puncture the lungs creating a medical emergency.
5. Lowered Immune Function
The immune system is adversely affected by hypercortisolism as well. The thymus regulates immune function, and high cortisol levels disrupt the normal function of this critical gland. High cortisol levels can result in autoimmune disorders where the immune system mistakes the body’s organs as an existential biological threat.
The thymus elevates production of antibodies and attacks otherwise healthy organs. Adrenal fatigue is an example of an autoimmune disorder created by hormonal imbalance. If left untreated, these disorders can develop into chronic diseases that threaten your health. Crohn’s disease, lupus, and fibromyalgia are severe and permanent diseases that require urgent medical treatment and monitoring by a health professional.
6. Mood Swings and Depression
Since hypercortisolism is a stress-related disorder, it can amplify feelings of anxiety, resulting in panic attacks and other nervous system disorders. Visit your healthcare professional if you are feeling depressed, it could be a sign of hypercortisolism or autoimmune disease. Address hormonal imbalances immediately to prevent the progression of psychological disorders that may masticate into mental health issues, such as self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Natural Treatment Strategies to Balance Cortisol Levels
Your doctor will determine the severity of your hypercortisolism by reviewing your bloodwork results. Provided that the condition isn’t severe, then it’s possible to treat it without the use of drugs. Try out these 5 strategies to reduce levels of cortisol naturally.
1. Rest as Much as Possible
Stress is the number one cause of cortisol imbalance. Cut out as many sources of stress from your life as possible. Try drinking herbal teas like valerian or chamomile to help you drift off to sleep. Add some GABA to your evening meal; this supplement increases the therapeutic value of your sleep.
2. Clean Up Your Diet and Drink More Water
Remove any sources of refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and sugar, from your diet. Refined carbs increase levels of systemic inflammation in the body, exasperating the symptoms of hypercortisolism. Replace these foods with sources of healthy fats, such as nuts, deep-water fish, extra-virgin olive oil, and whole eggs. Drink more water and stay hydrated to improve metabolic function.
3. Cut out Coffee
Coffee is a stimulant; therefore, it would make sense to quit the espresso while your recover from hypercortisolism. Coffee induces catabolic metabolism and decreases anabolic metabolism, boosting cortisol levels by up to 30% within an hour of drinking the beverage. Avoid tea and green tea as well, they both contain as much caffeine as coffee.
4. Regular Exercise
Exercise is critical for cardiovascular health and enhanced cognitive function. Raising your heart rate for 10 to 20 minutes each day has tremendous benefit in relieving the symptoms of hypercortisolism. Regular exercise also protects the cardiovascular system against the effects of excessive cortisol production. When you exercise, the brain releases serotonin and dopamine, “feel-good” hormones that lower the risk of developing depression or anxiety.
5. Supplement Your Diet with a Cortisol Blocker
Upon reviewing your bloodwork results, your physician will recommend a course of treatment to cure hypercortisolism. If the condition is not yet severe, it’s possible to reduce cortisol levels with a natural cortisol supplement, in combination with adjustments to your diet and lifestyle.
Visit your doctor a week or so after starting treatment for another bloodwork assessment. The results of the test will show the efficacy of the treatment and provide your medical professional with the information they need to make adjustments to your medication therapy.