What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands and has two major functions in the body: stimulating the breakdown of protein and fat to provide metabolites that can be converted to glucose in the liver and also, reacting in response to stress.
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone”. We need cortisol to survive and to help us cope with stress. When cortisol is released in response to stress, it is meant to be elevated and used only for short periods of time. If your cortisol levels remain elevated, it can actually do damage to your body.
Elevated levels of cortisol can:
- Interfere with learning and memory
- Lower immune function
- Lower bone density
- Increase weight gain
- Increase blood pressure
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Adrenal fatigue
The elevated cortisol and increase in health concerns can lead to more serious chronic conditions such as heart disease and increase your risk for depression and mental illness.
Detecting Cortisol Imbalance
If you have developed disorders such as adrenal fatigue or are suffering from multiple ailments and symptoms, it is likely that your doctor will want to determine the root cause of you condition(s). Hormone imbalances (such as a cortisol imbalance) are often likely causes of such conditions and symptoms, so it is likely that your functional medicine doctor will want to determine your cortisol levels. The best way of doing this is through testing salivary cortisol levels versus blood testing. (Blood testing could cause your cortisol levels to spike, therefore giving an inaccurate reading).
Once it has been determined if your cortisol levels are too high or too low, your doctor will then proceed with treatment to prevent or manage symptoms and complications.
Keeping Cortisol Levels Stable
It is important to keep your cortisol levels stable in order to avoid health complications and illnesses. The best way of doing this is by practicing stress management techniques. Our society is plagued by constant stressors and distractions, so this task may seem daunting, but if done effectively you can avoid excessive stress and unnecessary health concerns.
Some stress management strategies include:
- Exercising regularly
- Getting enough sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques
- Practicing time management
Your functional medicine doctor may recommend yoga or tai chi, meditation or massage. They may also recommend counseling or natural supplements. If your cortisol levels are too low you may be given bioidentical hormones to help support your adrenals.
If you are able to properly manage your stress, then your cortisol levels are likely to remain at a more stable level, keeping you healthier.