Cortisol has a bad reputation, and for a justtified reason.
Commonly known as the “stress hormone,” it’s produced, in part, by the adrenal glands when we’re under pressure and perceive a threat. The pituitary gland determines how much hormone the adrenals should release to help us fight or flee.
This alarm system works beautifully — until it doesn’t.
In today’s fast-paced culture, many of us are overworked, under rested, and under pressure from too many obligations, and the alarm never stops.
It’s this state of chronic agitation that triggers cortisol function to run amok, contributing to a host of problems: insomnia, excess belly fat, anxiety, and extreme fatigue, to name just a few. It’s no wonder cortisol has gotten a lot of bad press in the health media.
Yet without it we’re helpless.
“High cortisol levels wreak havoc over time, deplete your happy brain chemicals like serotonin, rob your sleep, and make you store fat, especially in your belly,” says Gottfried. “High cortisol is likewise linked to depression and food addiction.” Imbalances can also lead to inflammation and thyroid issues.
Here are some paterns to be aware off
High Early-Morning Cortisol Levels
A healthy curve begins with cortisol levels highest in the morning, but not hours before dawn. Cortisol levels are normally lowest around 3 a.m., then begin to rise, peaking around 8 a.m. If you routinely wake up hours before dawn in a state of anxiety, your cortisol is overachieving and spiking too early. This could be happening if:
- You rarely sleep through the night.
- Your mind is racing the moment you wake up.
- You’re edgy and confrontational in the mornings.
- Your energy crashes and burns sometime around mid-morning.
High Cortisol Levels Throughout the Day
Cortisol spikes in response to stressors like work deadlines, environmental pollution, and inadequate sleep. Ongoing high levels of cortisol can be caused by too much coffee, a lack of carbs throughout the day, or an intensive focus on schedules. If cortisol levels stay elevated, you’re wired but your adrenals are getting tired. It feels like:
- You’re constantly behind schedule and racing to catch up.
- You’re exhausted and hyper at the same time.
- People comment on how fast you talk.
- You’re easily irritated and feel little enthusiasm for anything.
High Evening Cortisol Levels
If you often find yourself in heated political arguments online at 9 p.m., or if you do heavy training at the gym in the evenings, it’s likely that your cortisol levels are skyrocketing at night — right when you want them to be coming down. Some common indications of high evening cortisol levels are:
- Falling asleep is nearly impossible and can take hours.
- You worry in the evenings or feel especially argumentative.
- You distract yourself by spending a lot of time online, watching TV, or working out at night — which can lead to self-defeating cycle of even higher evening cortisol.
Low Cortisol Levels Throughout the Day
After cortisol has been elevated for an extended period, it can drop off completely. When it does, you feel flat-lined. This usually signals adrenal exhaustion, when the overworked glands have shut down. Causes include prolonged and intense stress, sustained periods of inadequate sleep, and a general lack of physical and mental rest. Some indications of low cortisol are:
- You’re dragging through each day, even after plenty of sleep.
- It takes high-octane coffee or intense exercise to pull you up — but it doesn’t last.
- You fall asleep everywhere, including work meetings.
This “stress hormone” is essential for energy and health, but when it’s out of balance, you are, too. Learn how to manage cortisol to keep inflammation, cravings, and belly fat at bay on the next page.