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What is High Cortisol and How Do You Fix It?

What is High Cortisol and How Do You Fix It?

November 29, 2023

What is High Cortisol and How Do You Fix It?

Casey picture
By: Casey Einhorn
Functional Health Practitioner 

 

Table of Contents

Who hasn’t heard of cortisol? I’d say behind testosterone, it’s the most discussed and probably misunderstood hormone. The term stress and cortisol are synonymous. It seems that most people simply believe cortisol is the enemy to all things health and bodyweight. It’s often the scapegoat for weight gain. 

 

The intricacies of cortisol levels

The reality is, unhealthy and erratic cortisol function can contribute to poor health conditions, increase risk for illness, decrease testosterone levels and cause some increase in body fat. However, cortisol often takes too much of the blame for increases in body fat. It’s usually poor eating that’s more responsible for increases in body fat during times of stress.  For most people, when they are “stressed out,” they simply eat worse.

But cortisol plays many basic and important functions in the body. It’s responsible for protein, carbohydrate and fat metabolism, it helps to reduce inflammation and even controls your blood pressure. Similarly to most hormones, too much or too little cortisol can cause unwanted health issues.

Too much cortisol can:

  • Deplete micronutrients(vitamins and minerals)

  • Cause high blood pressure and sleep disturbances

  • Slow metabolism

  • Decrease testosterone levels and sex drive

  • Decrease thyroid function

  • Increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease 

One very common side effect of chronically high cortisol levels is irritability, anxiety and depression.

Cortisol and aging

Cortisol can really be our friend or our enemy. And this stress hormone becomes even more important as we age. There’s a term called Intracrinology that shows as we get older, our testicles become less responsible for producing testosterone and our adrenal glands become more important. In fact, by the age of 50, 50% of our sex steroids (testosterone included) are produced by the adrenal glands. This is due to another hormone the adrenal glands produce called DHEA(Dehydroepiandrosterone). DHEA is a hormone precursor to androgens in men, which basically means it helps to produce testosterone. It’s a powerful hormone that gets more important as we age.

Healthy adrenal glands = Better DHEA production = Better testosterone function, better energy and overall well-being.

 

The modern stress epidemic

Stressed man with his hand over his face.

The problem is, stress deteriorates adrenal gland function, causing less DHEA to be made. And stress hits us in many different forms. The obvious mental stresses like finances, relationships, kids, traffic, and work, to worrying about how many likes we get on our most recent Instagram post.

But the physical stresses are just as bad. Everything from lack of sleep, skipping meals, electronic devices, a hard workout, alcohol, processed and refined foods, dehydration, and so on. It’s constant! These daily stresses are forcing the adrenal glands to constantly pump out more cortisol.

Immediate effects of cortisol spikes

Chronically elevated cortisol levels set the body up to be in a more susceptible state for developing illness and disease. Even more short term bouts of stress and elevated cortisol levels will cause immediate life disturbances like:

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep

  • Desire for unhealthy foods

  • Inflammation and bloat

  • Anxiety, irritability, and depression

  • Lack of energy and constantly feeling like you need caffeine

  • Cravings for high carbohydrate foods and sugar

  • More prone to injury

Mitigating stress

By implementing some basic lifestyle, nutrition and supplementation protocols we can mitigate the stress response and therefore balance cortisol levels, improve testosterone function and overall health.

The importance of quality sleep

The first thing that needs to be corrected in most people is sleep. Sleep is almost as important as exercise. There have been many studies done on sleep and all cause mortality. Basically, people that sleep better, live healthier and longer lives.

Studies even show us that men that get less sleep have significantly lower testosterone levels. Even after just one week of restricting sleep to 5 hours a night, testosterone levels drop 10-15%! Guys that get 7-9 hours of sleep a night have better testosterone function.

Without getting too deep into the intricacies of sleep, one of the biggest issues that can cause disruptions in your circadian rhythm and negatively impact your cortisol/testosterone ratio is caffeine intake. While there are many health benefits to caffeine, we need to prioritize sleep before most everything else. And considering there is a chronic insomnia problem in the United States, the majority of people are sabotaging their efforts to get a quality nights rest, and one of the main culprits is often caffeine. 

Addressing caffeine intake

Coffee consumption is at an all time high with 62% of Americans drinking it everyday. And that number doesn’t take into account all the soda and energy drinks consumed daily. The problem is, it takes 12 hours for caffeine to leave your system. So if you have any form of caffeine in the afternoon, it can make falling and staying asleep more difficult. And the more caffeine you have, the more of a problem it can cause. Even your morning coffee can cause nightly sleep disturbances. I often see people who temporarily eliminate caffeine, improve their quality of sleep. While this may sound very difficult to some, a 7-day reset can really cause an immediate improvement in sleep and cortisol function.

 

7-Day health switch challenge

There’s an easy morning ritual that if you get into the habit of doing, can result in a significant improvement in cortisol levels and overall health.

Glass of ice water with lemon in it and a spoonful of pink salt sitting in front of it.

Instructions:

  • Pour a glass of 10-16 oz of filtered water.

  • Squeeze a fresh lemon or lime in it.

  • Add 1/4tsp of some colored salt such as Himalayan, Celtic or sea salt.

  • Mix together and drink within 30 minutes upon awakening before any food intake.

Eliminating caffeine is not mandatory, however, this drink will have more of an impact if you abstain from caffeine for a minimum of 5 days. 

The lemon combined with the high mineral concentration of a quality salt, has a synergistic effect. Taken first thing in the morning provides the added benefit to the liver and even aids in glutathione production. Glutathione is our body’s most important antioxidant that’s involved in detoxification.

The sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium in these salts will also improve adrenal gland health and have a positive effect on cortisol function.

The benefits of this drink come when taken within the first 30 minutes upon awakening and have to be before any food is eaten. It’s simple to make, costs less than that morning latte and provides many health benefits, including improved adrenal gland function, enhanced detoxification and better digestion.

 

Gut health and cortisol levels

Improving digestion and gut function should be a priority for most.

While the saying, “you are what you eat” is true, what’s even more accurate is, “you are what you absorb.” And unfortunately we don’t absorb all the nutrients from the food we eat like we used too due to the widespread gut issues now facing most Americans.

While cases of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s have greatly increased over the past 20 years, even smaller gut issues like Dysbiosis, intestinal permeability, and SIBO(Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) are also much more common. And even if you don’t have any underlying symptoms, doesn’t mean your gut is functioning optimally.

HCL's impact on the gut

The truth is, 85% of people have some form of gut irritation. And this gut irritation depletes HCL (hydrochloric acid) levels. HCL is made in the gut and is responsible for breaking down the food we eat so we can absorb all the vitamins and minerals from it. HCL is even responsible for digesting and assimilating protein so we an absorb the amino acids. It’s not only one of the most important chemicals in the body, but also one of the hardest to make.

Mental or physical stress = Increased cortisol output = Deterioration in gut function = Lower HCL levels = Decreased absorption of nutrients from food.

It is very common to have low HCL due to high cortisol levels and poor gut function.

Building HCL

The lemon and salt drink is an easy way to improve the health of the gut because it helps to build HCL. When we absorb more of the nutrients from our food, the body will function better.  

Zinc and testosterone

HCL is needed to absorb zinc from our food. Zinc deficiency is common in the US and UK and is even more prevalent in people that consume grains or cereal for breakfast. Zinc is responsible for hundreds of chemical reactions in the body and it also has a profound effect on testosterone levels. One study on 88 men showed that guys with testosterone levels in the normal range had significantly higher zinc levels compared to men that had low testosterone. The lemon and salt drink also improves detoxification and bowel motility and regularity.

 

Beyond the 7 days: reintroducing coffee

After the 7 days, if you want to bring coffee back into your morning routine, there are 2 things you can do that will improve how the body, along with the adrenal glands and cortisol receptors, respond to your morning cup of joe.

Adenosine and cortisol interaction

The first and probably hardest is to wait at least 90 minutes before having that first cup. This is due to a more unknown compound called adenosine. Adenosine is in every cell of the body and acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Basically, the more adenosine we make, the more tired we feel. Adenosine levels increase as the day goes on, ultimately putting us to sleep at night. If we get enough sleep, more adenosine will clear from the body and we’ll ultimately have more energy. The less sleep we get, the more adenosine will remain in our bodies causing us to feel more tired.

When you ingest caffeine first thing in the morning, you block these adenosine receptors. This causes a spike in energy and wakefulness. The problem with doing this is that once the caffeine wears off, your adenosine levels will return with force. This is what’s greatly responsible for causing that “crash” hours later. By waiting at least 90 minutes before drinking coffee, your adenosine levels will naturally rise and that crash will not be as intense.

Also, cortisol production naturally rises in the morning and it is at this time that it’s at its highest level for the day. Morning cortisol helps to clear adenosine out of the body. If we drink caffeine before this natural process takes place, we interfere with the natural, cortisol release/adenosine cycle, creating more adenosine and therefore more fatigue once the caffeine wears off.

Adaptogens: A healthier coffee option

The second healthy coffee habit you can implement is switching to an adaptogen based coffee. As you may have already read on the Mdrive site, adaptogens are herbs or mushrooms that improve the body’s ability to respond to stress and help to restore overall balance and homeostasis.

Basically, if cortisol levels are too high, it can bring them down, if they’re too low, it can bring them up.

There are many coffee formulations that include adaptogens in their product. They usually contain caffeine and one to three different adaptogens. A few examples are Organo Gold, which contains Reishi mushroom, Four Sigmatic, which has different adaptogen formulations, and Mdrive Start, which contains a clinically-tested form of ashwagandha and caffeine, along with protein and other supplements.

Mdrive Start

 

Conclusion

In this comprehensive guide, we've explored the intricate relationship between high cortisol, stress, and overall health. In a nutshell, too much cortisol is not good for you. But there are simple ways you can combat rising cortisol levels. From addressing sleep patterns and caffeine intake, to introducing adaptogens, these insights provide actionable steps toward a balanced and healthier lifestyle. We encourage you to take the 7-day health switch challenge and let us know your results!




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