What Is Cortisol and How Does It Relate to Women’s Hormones?

Cortisol

Most people have never heard of cortisol, so what is cortisol and how is it important to you?

Heightened cortisol levels can rear their head in the form of weight gain, fatigue, irritability, and various other symptoms. One of the greatest influencers of this hormonal imbalance is exposure to chronic stress.

Whether you’re a high-level executive, a stay-at-home mom, or some other superwoman variation, there’s no denying that you experience stressors in your daily life — even when the world is functioning in typical fashion. The novel coronavirus has caused unprecedented shifts in responsibilities and routines, impacting everything from your daily visit to the gym to your weekly grocery trip and your Saturday date night. 

Home is now a multi-functional facility that encompasses office space, classrooms, cafeterias, and more. Separations that once existed between different facets of life are gone. With no timeline surrounding when we can expect to achieve the “new normal” that we all like to reference (but can’t quite pin down), it’s no wonder that stress levels continue to mount. 

Elevated levels of cortisol that are associated with high stress aren’t just bad in the interim, though. In fact, a prolonged imbalance in this hormone can have lasting effects on your overall health, so learning to manage contributing factors can be essential to your well-being.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone in your body, and it has an important role in a number of vital processes and functions. When your cortisol levels are off-balance, it can cause changes in other hormone levels and lead to noticeable effects on your physical and mental well-being.

Signs of a hormonal imbalance include things like:

  • Changes in weight
  • Fatigue
  • Acne
  • Irritability 

Cortisol levels in Women

For women, high levels of cortisol can also lead to reproductive problems, including:

  • Changes in menstruation
  • Reduced sexual desire
  • Decreased fertility or difficulties conceiving
  • Heightened premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms
  • Worsening of symptoms related to polycystic ovarian syndrome (POS), herpes, or other reproductive diseases

Stress has a significant impact on cortisol secretion, but other factors can contribute to having too much or too little in your body. These range from underlying conditions like diabetes to poor diet and exercise or exposure to toxins.

what is cortisol

How to Tell If You Have High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is the primary steroid hormone responsible for controlling your body’s stress response, which is why it is often associated with “fight-or-flight.” At optimal levels, it helps to regulate mood, fear, and motivation. Thanks to cortisol receptors found in nearly every cell, it also plays an important role in numerous other bodily processes, like controlling your immune system function and sleep-wake cycle.

The amount of cortisol your body needs varies by the day or even moment. When the HPA axis — the area of your brain made up of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands — senses that your body’s cortisol levels are too low, it kicks off a process to stimulate cortisol production. 

  • If all the cortisol receptors are responding appropriately, this will cause cortisol levels to spike and temporarily shut down non-essential functions like digestion and reproduction during stressful events. 
  • This natural response allows your body to focus its resources on moving past the external threat. 
  • Once your body senses that the environment is “safe” again, functions are restored. 

When you are exposed to chronic stress, your body can’t process the negative feedback loop responsible for signaling a necessary decrease in your cortisol levels once you’ve escaped the threatening stimuli. This can leave your body thinking it is in a constant state of fight-or-flight, so it imposes the same limitations on non-essential functions as it would during a real threat. Yet many of those functions, like digestion, are critical to life outside the context of immediate danger. 

If you believe your cortisol levels are too high, you may notice symptoms such as:

  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings and depression
  • Panic and anxiety disorders
  • Metabolism, blood sugar, and digestion issues
  • Heart disease, elevated heart rate, or high blood pressure 
  • Changes in skin health
  • Muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Easy bruising

Over an extended period, elevated levels of cortisol can lead to the onset of more serious conditions like hypercortisolism. 

What to Do If You Suspect Your Cortisol Levels Might Be High

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. If you are experiencing symptoms that cause you to suspect that you may have elevated levels of cortisol, an essential first step in combating the effects is to try to manage your stress levels proactively. 

You can help your body to balance your hormone levels naturally by: 

  • Adjusting your diet to include more cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, and protein, and incorporate healthy fats like fish and avocado, as well as coconut, palm, and olive oils. 
  • Reducing your caffeine and sugar intake
  • Incorporating natural stress management techniques like mediation, regular exercise, reading or listening to music, spending time outdoors, and writing, drawing, or other creative activities into your daily routine.
  • Getting enough sleep. Your body needs the therapeutic properties of sleep to function correctly. If your sleep habits prevent you from getting the shut-eye you need, consider making changes to your routine to improve your rest times. 

If your symptoms persist, your doctor can order a cortisol test to rule out problems with your adrenal glands. There are also functional cortisol tests that can show how your body is responding to stress in everyday life. These are usually saliva or urine. Abnormal results can help to inform you and your care team in developing an appropriate cortisol management plan. 

What to Do If You’re Not Sure How to Manage Cortisol Levels

From the daily responsibilities at work and home to stressful events like the global COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of trying to self-manage your cortisol levels through stress reduction may seem laughable. Getting this vital hormone under control is critical to your long-term health, however. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a trusted holistic wellness practitioner or naturopathic doctor can offer professional guidance with a wholesome, restorative approach to your health and well-being. For questions or concerns related to cortisol production and its effects on the body, naturopathic medicine, or to schedule an appointment, contact Dr. Karen Threlkel today.

About The Author:

Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Threlkel received her degree of Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine from The National College for Naturopathic Medicine (now called The National University of Natural Medicine) in Portland, Oregon. She also holds a Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology from The University of Maryland. She is licensed in Naturopathic Medicine by the Government of the District of Columbia Department of Health. Dr. Threlkel is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, past president & current member of the Washington DC Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

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