What to Know About Low Cortisol

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Last Updated on December 15, 2022

Cortisol is a steroid hormone. Your adrenal glands, which are on top of the kidneys and are part of the adrenal system, produce and release cortisol. Cortisol helps regulate your stress response, along with other functions. 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone. Your adrenal glands, which are on top of the kidneys and are part of the adrenal system, produce and release cortisol. Cortisol helps regulate your stress response, along with other functions. 

Below is a guide to cortisol, and in particular, low cortisol. We also explore what supplements to take for low cortisol. 

Understanding Cortisol

Cortisol is considered a glucocorticoid hormone. Hormones are chemicals that carry messages through your blood to your muscles, skin, organs, and other parts of your body. The signals from hormones let your body know what it needs to do and when it should do it. 

Glucocorticoids are a type of steroid hormone that suppress inflammation and control metabolism, as well as sleep-wake cycles. 

Cortisol’s many roles include regulating your stress response, as mentioned above. Cortisol also controls how your body uses fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, stops inflammation, regulates your blood pressure and blood sugar, and controls sleep-wake cycles. 

Your body is always monitoring your levels of cortisol to keep them steady. If your levels of cortisol are too low or too high, it can have negative implications for your health. 

Sometimes, cortisol is referred to as a stress hormone, but it has a lot of other functions aside from that. 

Cortisol can affect almost every organ system you have, including your immune, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, and musculoskeletal systems. 

Your body has a complex system to regulate your levels of cortisol. Your hypothalamus in your brain plays a role in the regulating of hormones, as does your pituitary gland. 

High Cortisol

It’s more common for people to have high cortisol compared to low cortisol. When you have high levels of cortisol that go on for extended periods, it’s called Cushing’s syndrome, but this condition is rare. 

Reasons for Cushing’s syndrome can include tumors, taking large amounts of corticosteroid medicines like prednisone for long periods of time, or adrenal gland tumors. 

Signs and symptoms of elevated cortisol levels can include weight gain, particularly in the abdomen and face, and fatty deposits between the shoulder blades. Muscle weakness, high blood sugar and blood pressure, excessive hair growth, and weak bones are also signs of high cortisol. 

If someone has high cortisol, it may be due to a constant state of stress or anxiety. Your cortisol levels spike when you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, and then they go down when you’re more relaxed. If your cortisol levels go up, then all of your energy is going towards handling stress instead of the regulation of other functions, such as your immune function or your digestive function. 

There are a lot of things you can do lifestyle-wise if you’re dealing with high cortisol levels. 

Eating a healthy diet can help reduce cortisol levels, as can regular exercise. Getting enough sleep and reducing caffeine intake can help with symptoms of high cortisol. 

Supplements that can help with high cortisol include ashwagandha, which is talked more about below since it can also help with low cortisol. Fish oil which is a source of omega-3 fatty acids can help with reducing cortisol. 

Low Cortisol

If you have low cortisol levels chronically, it could be due to adrenal insufficiency. When you have adrenal insufficiency, it means that your adrenal glands aren’t able to make enough cortisol. 

There are three types of adrenal insufficiency. 

Primary adrenal insufficiency means that something is affecting adrenal gland function directly. This is known as Addison’s disease, and it is often the result of autoimmune disorders, where the body launches attacks on the adrenal gland, negatively affecting its ability to make cortisol. 

Other reasons for Addison’s disease can include cancerous cells in the adrenal glands, removal of the glands through surgery, genetic disorders, and some antifungal medicines. 

Secondary adrenal insufficiency happens when the pituitary gland isn’t producing enough of something called ACTH. ACTH is a hormone that directs the adrenal glands to make cortisol. 

There are a lot of reasons for secondary adrenal insufficiency, including autoimmune disease, pituitary tumors or infections, or genetic diseases. 

Tertiary adrenal insufficiency occurs when something prevents the release of a hormone called CRH. This can occur if you’ve been taking prescription corticosteroids and you suddenly stop them without tapering down. 

Adrenal fatigue can also lead to low cortisol. Adrenal fatigue is when your adrenal glands are burned out from producing high amounts of a hormone for a long time. 

Symptoms of Low Cortisol

If you have low cortisol levels, you might experience symptoms like:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

It’s important if you are experiencing these symptoms, you speak to your healthcare provider because they might indicate that there’s a bigger underlying problem with your adrenal function. 

Are There Supplements That Help with Low Cortisol?

If you have low cortisol levels, supplements aren’t a replacement for medical treatment. Some conditions causing low levels of cortisol are very serious and require medical care, monitoring, and treatments. 

You might supplement as well, and if you don’t necessarily have a disease-causing low cortisol, but maybe it’s more of a lifestyle factor related to adrenal fatigue, supplements can be helpful. 

One supplement that can help with low cortisol is vitamin C. High doses of vitamin C can help reduce blood pressure, support a healthy stress response, and improve cortisol recovery. 

Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogenic herb, which means it can help restore a sense of balance to the body. 

Ashwagandha can help with stress resistance and a number of other symptoms, such as insomnia. 

Holy basil leaf is also an adaptogen. Some people find that it’s beneficial for combating psychological stress, and it may help in the stabilization of blood pressure and blood sugar levels. 

Also an adaptogen, Rhodiola can help with fatigue related to stress, and it may support the production of more cortisol. Some people use Rhodiola because it helps with focus and mental performance. 

Cortisol is a hormone that’s important for your physical and mental health. If you think your levels of cortisol are out of balance, whether that means they’re too low or too high, you should speak to your healthcare provider.

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