In today’s fast-paced, plugged-in world of texts, urgent deadlines, environmental toxins, and endless to-do lists, our stress response is constantly being stimulated. And chronic stress can result in low cortisol levels, or hypocortisolism.
Abnormal cortisol levels damage our normal biology through compromised gut function, poor sleep and an impaired immune system. We become tired, lethargic, unfocused and caffeine-dependent; we crave salt or sugar and are unable to cope with daily stressors. Severe fatigue, light-headedness, headaches, depression, and sweats are other symptoms of hypocortisolism.
The body copes with stress through the brain (hypothalamus-pituitary), nervous system and adrenal glands, also known as the HPA axis. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, a ‘fight or flight’ hormone. Normally, cortisol levels play a critical role in survival and our sense of well-being. However, chronic stress can lead to HPA axis dysregulation, causing a severe disruption of the natural rhythm, resulting in hypocortisolism. Some refer to this condition as Adrenal Fatigue.
Here’s a perfect example based on a real case: Anne, a 39-year old executive, usually attends boot camp four times per week, runs marathons, and is a competitive rower. For months she notices morning fatigue, presses snooze more than three times before finally rising, and drinks 1-2 cups of coffee each morning to awaken. Work is intense, with constant phone texts. Unable to keep up her exercise routine (energy drinks no longer work) she hits a brick wall by 5 pm and can barely move. Sleep is restless. Her test results at a specialized clinic reveal low levels of cortisol throughout the day.
If your exercise program leaves you depleted or takes days to recover as in Anne’s case, you may have hypocortisolism. If you are tired but your bloodwork is normal, it could be your adrenals!
Exercise is a great way to ‘de-stress’ and athletes are known to have better resilience than sedentary people. However, when exercise is extreme, prolonged and excessive, it can be stressful to the body and compromise adrenal function.
Hypocortisolism can be debilitating for athletes by reducing exercise performance and tolerance, holding them back from competitions or worse, putting them at risk for inflammatory and immune conditions. Specialized testing for cortisol is generally unavailable at medical doctors’ offices. Seek out Integrative Practitioners instead.
5 Ways to Optimize Your Adrenal Function
- Downtime: practice mindfulness, deep breathing and meditation.
- Diet: nutrient-rich,
plant-based foods, clean fats and proteins.
- Supplements: multi-vitamin / minerals, vitamins B, C, and magnesium.
- Sleep: Get enough quality sleep.
- Manage Stress: Instead of reacting to stress without thinking which activates the fight or flight response, try to take a more mindful, thought-out and deliberate approach.