Cortisol—What You Need to Know, Part 1


By Joan-Marie Lartin, PhD, RN


What is cortisol? Cortisol is a chemical messenger produced when the brain tells the adrenal glands, “Hey, we need some energy, now!” Cortisol triggers a release of insulin into the blood stream, mobilizing the body’s fight-or-flight response.

After the initial alarm, cortisol production winds down. However, when there is chronic, sustained stress, the body may begin a descent “down the rabbit hole” into adrenal imbalance, creating many different types of problems.

Early-Stage Stress Response

Ongoing stress initially creates a great deal of cortisol production. If the person does not fight, flee, or otherwise use up the excess energy, he or she may experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • weight gain
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • insomnia
  • poor concentration

A stressed-out person may take substances, legal and illegal, to calm down, think straight and focus. In my clinical experience, a very high percentage of kids and adults who believe they have symptoms of ADD or ADHD are, in fact, experiencing chronic stress. Most likely, their cortisol levels are very high.

Sometimes, constant stress damages the cortisol receptors. As this happens, the body shuts down the override or feedback mechanisms and the blood levels of cortisol remain high. At that point, the body’s natural feedback process isn’t working well. If the stress continues, the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, start to become depleted.

 Mid-Stage Stress Response

When the adrenal glands continue to secrete cortisol over a sustained period, the person enters an early stage of adrenal depletion. Cortisol levels start to decrease as the brain’s receptor cells become damaged.

The person begins to show these signs:

  • low energy
  • fatigue
  • easily overwhelmed
  • mild depression
  • a degree of mental fog
  • and many other symptoms

Cortisol imbalances are frequently associated with disruptions in other key areas, such as the endocrine hormones of the thyroid and the ovaries (mainly estrogen), and the immune system, as well as neurotransmitter levels.

At this point, if the stressors are not resolved the person keeps up a hectic pace. If there is little nutritional, nutraceutical, or other support, the next, fairly drastic stage, is adrenal fatigue.

Late-Stage Stress Response

This depleted stage, also known as late chronic stress, is often termed ‘adrenal fatigue.’ Cortisol levels, once very high, are now very low. The person may suffer these symptoms:

  • very low levels of energy
  • brain fog
  • reliance on carbohydrates and caffeine
  • chronic infections
  • gastrointestinal issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • salt cravings

Small wonder that women living with disordered men have more than their fair share of problems. These problems include:

  • thyroid imbalances
  • anxiety
  • sleep disturbances
  • irritability
  • weight gain
  • sex hormone imbalances
  • autoimmune diseases

Because the adrenal glands play such an important role in the development of many of the body’s biochemicals, some clinicians question whether extreme, ongoing stress plays a role in women developing estrogen-sensitive tumors.

Next week I will provide more information on cortisol imbalances, including further reading and treatment options. Meanwhile, you may want to check out this website that I recommend on women’s adrenal health.


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