Are High or Low Cortisol Levels Keeping You From Feeling Good?

Have you been feeling a little less like yourself lately? Have you been struggling with your enormous to-do list? Or fighting to keep all of those balls you’re juggling in the air?

If so, you might be dealing with mild to moderate adrenal fatigue. Or, if you’re down-right and absolutely TIRED, then you might be in the throes of full-blown adrenal exhaustion.

Adrenal fatigue and adrenal exhaustion hit Type-A, super duper capable people who can usually juggle work and home stress like a champ. You are a super capable superstar.

…and then one day, almost out of the blue, the day-to-day juggling feels almost impossible. You might add lots of caffeine and that makes it almost doable…but not quite.

It’ll be okay - your energy will come back. 

I know it will because I’ve been there, and so have many of my clients. Your fog will lift and that quick, sharp mind of yours will be back with a vengeance.

I’ve lived most of my life as a stress-junkie. I’ve lived on the edge of “oh sh**” for many, many, many years. I used to work best at the edge of a deadline, and if my work wasn’t stressful then my hobbies were (rock climbing, skydiving, etc). I loved that rush…until it became unbearable.

After burning out my adrenals more than once (I didn’t learn the first or second time), I’ve finally found a better balance in my life….and I’ve begun to enjoy a much calmer state of being. Ahhhh, it’s so nice. I still get lots done in a day, I’m just much calmer while I’m doing it :). 

I went from stress-junkie to meditation junkie. Calmness is just so blissful that it must be shared :).

First, we need to talk about Cortisol -

Cortisol is our long-term stress hormone and it’s produced in our adrenal glands. We get a jolt of cortisol when we first wake up in the morning. It boosts our blood pressure and allows us to be able to get out of bed and start our day. Our adrenals give us an extra boost when we’re dealing with a stressful day or month…or year.

When we’ve been under a lot of long-term stress our cortisol levels stay pretty high all the time…and then one day our adrenal glands can’t keep up and bye-bye cortisol.

high stress

Symptoms of High Cortisol

Mostly, our stressed-out response creates high cortisol levels in our body. So, high cortisol symptoms are also very classic symptoms of stress. Like;

  • Feeling high-strung or unable to relax
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping, mind won’t stop spinning
  • No appetite or can’t stop eating (everyone is a bit unique with this one)
  • Weight gain, usually around the belly
  • Fertility and hormonal issues (specifically low progesterone or testosterone)
  • Indigestion - bloating, gas, gastritis (super painful acid reflux)
  • Possibly Metabolic Syndrome (a combo of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cortisol)

Symptoms of Low Cortisol

You may feel the high cortisol symptoms for months or even years…and then one day, poof, your energy is gone. These are usually much more debilitating symptoms and your normal work/family commitments may feel impossible.

If these symptoms seem very familiar to you, help from a practitioner(s) can really speed up the healing process. A combo of a Naturopath and a Holistic Nutritionist (like me :) works really well. Like;

  • Low blood pressure, especially if you feel dizzy when you stand-up quickly
  • It takes 30 mins or more to feel awake in the morning (might be hours)
  • Feeling foggy, trouble concentrating
  • Depression…especially if you’re usually anxious
  • Anxiety…especially if depression is your norm
  • Caffeine doesn’t give you the boost it used to
  • Unstable blood sugar - feeling a blood sugar crash even after a very healthy meal
  • Salt cravings
  • You’re feeling capital-T TIRED

If you’re not sure where your cortisol levels are right now (you may feel symptoms from both lists) you can have your cortisol levels tested. The most accurate test is a spit test done through your friendly neighbourhood Naturopath. This spit test will test your cortisol levels throughout the day, so you’ll see exactly what’s going on.

No matter where you find yourself - high or low cortisol levels, the solution is pretty similar. And, most importantly, you can get your cortisol levels back to normal.  WOO!

How to find balance -

1. Rest, rest, and more rest -

If you’re able to sleep, please do. And do it A LOT. I’m a good sleeper and I find that getting a few extra hours whenever I need it speeds up my healing enormously. I’ve been known to sleep 10 - 11 hours a night when I need it.

If you struggle with sleep, the best advice I can give you is to keep trying. Sleep hygiene and sleep supplements can be very effective for some people. Meditation, yin yoga, and yoga nidra can give you wonderful restful moments in your day…and can help pull you out of that high-stress mode, even for just a few mins. Every relaxed moment is healing.

2. Lots and lots and lots of nutrients -

When you’re under stress your body is working very hard too and it needs lots and lots of nutrients to keep up. Add lots of fruits, veggies (esp cooked/steamed), nuts, and seeds to your diet. 

This is also a good time for freshly-pressed veggie juices. There’s a time and a place for juicing, and this is exactly that time and that place. You’ll get lots of nutrients without having to work at digesting the fibre. Juicing can be very healing.

3. Sea Salt…as much as you crave (unless you’ve been told otherwise by your MD) -

Sea salt has been given a very bad reputation. We’ve been told to eat less salt simply because processed food is high in salt. 

It’s the processed food we need to limit, and new research is finding that a low salt diet may be harmful for some.

Most of you who are cooking at home most of the time don’t have to worry about limiting salt. And, if you’re eating a healthy diet and craving salt…then you need more.

Lots and lots more if your cortisol levels are low. Sea salt can help bring up your blood pressure slightly and take some strain off of your adrenals. It works really well for lowering anxiety and the annoying brain fog that comes with low cortisol levels.

4. Exercise - for high cortisol levels only -

Movement, about 30 mins a day, works really well to bring down high cortisol levels. But, if your levels are low, it’ll just make you more exhausted. 

An important rule of thumb - if exercise gives you energy, keep it up. If you’re exhausted afterward, switch to gentle yoga or meditation for a bit. 

And NO HOT YOGA for anyone. It’s really draining on your body. Sorry hot yoga lovers, go back to it once you’re feeling back to normal.

4. Adrenal supportive supplements -

When stress is chronic, your body needs extra support. Most adrenal herbal blends are filled with adaptogenic herbs (they help you adapt to day-to-day life) and nervine tonics (they help your nervous system heal). 

There are many options and here are a few of my favourites -

High cortisol and feeling high-strung - try Botanica’s Adrenal Support tincture. It’s formulated to calm you down and helps you relax. I always have this one on hand…so I can take it when I need it.

Low cortisol and needing a boost - there are two options:

Early stage, just starting to feel tired - try Botanica’s Adrenal Support Phytocaps. This formula gives a nice boost, without being overly stimulating.

Exhausted AND your blood pressure is low - try AOR Ortho Adapt. This is the big guns for adrenal support. This formula contains glandulars, which can speed up your healing. And a good dose of licorice, which will boost your blood pressure and cortisol levels. 

Your blood pressure is always low, so you feel tired a lot - If you’re in this category, but not quite exhausted anymore, you might do well with a licorice tincture. Licorice keeps your blood pressure up and slows the breakdown of cortisol. 

This is a very particular herb for a very particular problem - so don’t use it if your blood pressure is generally normal and you don’t have any low cortisol symptoms. And, by using a licorice tincture you can adjust the dose to what you need every day.

If you’re feeling exhausted but you don’t know why I hope this has given you some answers and some direction :).

Have you been through adrenal fatigue yourself, and are now feeling a lot better? If so, we’d love to hear about what worked for you. Share your tips in the comments below :)