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Cortisol... Is it Really that Bad?

Cortisol gets such a bad rap because it’s synonymous with our body’s stress response. The thing is, it's not all bad, it’s actually essential for living. Cortisol plays a role in regulating our blood sugar levels and metabolism among many other things. 


So how does it do that? When blood sugar levels are too low, the hypothalamus in the brain senses this and sends a cascade of signals that demand the adrenal glands to release cortisol. When cortisol is in the bloodstream it signals to the liver and muscles it is time to convert the stored sugar, called glycogen, into glucose (or sugar).  This is released into the bloodstream and used by the body as fuel. So without cortisol our body would not be able to access the energy stores in our body. 


So why is cortisol released during the stress response? Similar to when blood sugar is low, when their body recognizes a stressor, the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This leads to an increase in blood sugar so the body has the fuel needed to respond quickly to this response. So if you see a tiger, you want to know you have the fuel available to run as fast and as far as you can from it. 


From an evolutionary standpoint this is great. You want to be able to run away from all the lions and tigers and bears (ohh my!). But when we have so many stressors in our modern day-to-day life, that is when things start to get challenging. Instead of lions and tigers and bears, we are dealing with looming work deadlines, balancing the kids extracurricular activities, relationships woes and all the fun stuff. 


When we have these constant spikes of cortisol throughout the day, it starts to impact the normal pattern of cortisol. Cortisol is meant to be highest in the morning, in order to get us up and out of bed. It slowly drops throughout the day, with its lowest in the evening, allowing us to get to sleep. Overnight cortisol slowly increases again. This increase is meant to manage our blood sugar while we are sleeping and typically going without food for an extended period of time. Since we are often not eating during the night, without a gradual increase in cortisol, our blood sugar would bottom out, causing us to wake up because our body is in starvation mode. 



Issues with cortisol are usually related to a disruption of this  normal “s curve” pattern. This often means the curve is shifted, so it is not hitting the peaks and valleys at the right time of day, or it is peaking too much (more than once per day) or not at all (flat lining). 


If the curve is shifted and someone is no longer getting a cortisol peak in the morning, people can have a very difficult time getting out of bed, they can feel unrefreshed and exhausted despite getting “enough” sleep.  A shift can also be seen as issues getting to sleep in the evening, feeling “tired but wired”, where cortisol is too high when people are trying to sleep. People can also experience waking up in the middle for unknown reasons, because our cortisol is not rising properly leading to a drastic drop in blood sugar. Our body will wake us up in an effort to get us to eat to solve our blood sugar issue. 


The issue of cortisol spiking throughout the day can often be seen as alternating bouts of energy and fatigue. It can lead to a dysregulation of normal hunger patterns, meaning you aren’t hungry when normally are and are hungry when you normally aren’t. 


Lastly, when cortisol is flat lining and there is no variation throughout the day, people will feel exhausted all the time and will often use sugar food or caffeine to fuel themselves throughout the day. Their cortisol is not allowing fuel to be released for their body to use, so they are looking for artificially pick-me-ups for additional energy.  


Are you experiencing any of these issues? It can be a sign that your blood sugar is not being balanced properly, which could be a sign that your cortisol is out of wack.  


Reflection

  1. Do you have issues waking up in the morning, feeling unrefreshed and can’t drag yourself out of bed?

  2. Are you feeling exhausted all the time that you are looking for caffeine and sugary snacks throughout the day?

  3. Are you experiencing energy highs and crashes constantly throughout the day?

  4. Do you find your “tired but wired” in the evening and can’t get to sleep?

  5. Are you waking up in the middle of the night and having issues getting back to sleep? related to a disruption of this  normal “s curve” pattern. This often means the curve is shifted, so it is not hitting the peaks and valleys at the right time of day, or it is peaking too much (more than once per day) or not at all (flat lining). 

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