The Science Of Stress: Cortisol & Adrenal Health

adrenal fatigue
February 16, 2016
by Shannon Keating

Last week in “The Science of Stress: Getting to Know Your Adrenals”,  you were introduced to the adrenal glands, and specifically the adrenals’ important role in stress and what happens to your health when they are not functioning properly.

In this post we’re going to dive a bit deeper into what a stress response looks like in your body, how chronic stress negatively affects your adrenals and, thus your health, and most importantly, what you can do about it.

First, a bit more Adrenal Anatomy and Hormone Discussion

You have two side-by-side adrenal glands, each consisting of two layers: an outer CORTEX and an inner MEDULLA.

The outer CORTEX produces steroid hormones including ALDOSTERONE, CORTISOL, DHEA, and sex hormone precursors.

The inner MEDULLA produces/secretes EPINEPHRINE (aka: ADRENALINE), NOREPINEPHRINE (aka: NORADRENALIN), and small amounts of DOPAMINE.

Remember: the main job of your adrenals is to secrete these hormones in order to help your body cope with, and respond to stress.

Every time your brain recognizes a specific stressor (all these “stressors” are listed in “The Science of Stress: Getting to Know Your Adrenals”), your adrenal glands elicit a “stress-response”, more commonly known as the “fight-or-flight response”.

This “fight-or-flight” response is part of our biological wiring. It is a primitive, automatic response that was necessary years ago when stress was only experienced in life or death situations.

A quick breakdown of the “fight-or-fight response”

FIRST, Your brain sends a signal to your adrenal medulla to secrete EPINEPHRINE (more commonly known as ADRENALINE). Epinephrine/adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, and blood glucose, and dilates your pupils.

These are physiological mechanisms necessary to prepare you to quickly get out of potentially life threatening situations (preparing you to fight or flight!).

SECOND, at the same time, but at a slightly slower rate, the brain initiates another hormone signaling cascade known as the HPA Axis.

Using hormones, the Hypothalamus in the brain signals to the Pituitary, which then signals to the adrenals to produce CORTISOL.

Cortisol’s primary role in a stressful situation is to to increase in the amount of glucose (sugar energy) in your blood to provide quick fuel for your brain and muscles.

THIRD, at the same time as cortisol, a final hormone, ALDOSTERONE is released from the adrenal glands. Aldosterone helps regulate sodium & potassium levels in the body.

I did my best to keep that breakdown simple, but you can probably tell there’s quite a bit going on during the “fight-or-flight” response.

Waaay back in the day, when we were living in caves and being chased by lions and stuff, this was necessary. We needed this stress response in order to survive.

Stress then vs. stress now

One of the main differences between our stress back then and our stress now is that the stressors back then may have been bigger (such as a literal lion attack) but they were acute, and easy to recover from (well, if you managed to escape getting eaten, that is).

Nowadays, our stressors may not be life threatening but they are widespread and compounding. AND YOUR BODY STILL RESPONDS TO THEM AS THOUGH THEY ARE LIFE THREATENING. Over and over again. All day long.

Can you say, uh oh?

To give you a better feel for this “fight or flight” response I want you to imagine the following scenario: you are driving home from work or the gym at the end of the day, attempting to do that thing we like to call “multitasking” – you know, texting, driving, changing the music, thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner – when all of a sudden you realize the light you’re zooming into has turned red, or better yet, a deer suddenly crosses the street in front of you.

You suddenly have to hit the brakes, hard. Your stomach drops, your heart starts beating out of your chest, and your body breaks out into a sweaty, goose-bumpy mess.

That right there, is your body’s “fight-or-flight response”, in it’s more “intense” version.

Milder versions of this are more common. Our bodies have learned to tone down this response a bit over the years so that every time we experience a stressor we do not physically feel the effects.

But, the crazy thing is, while we may not get the actual goosebumps and sweats, the response is still happening at a lower level in our body whenever we perceive something as stressful and thus subconsciously send a signal to our brain.

More “modern day fight-or-flight responses” look something like this:

  • Negative thoughts/emotions surrounding yourself, your body, your career path, your relationships, etc. Your brain perceives all negative thoughts as stressors.
  • Daily, excess stimulants such as coffee and other caffeinated beverages, alcohol, and drugs.
  • Staying up too late and using stimulating electronic devices such as phones, computers, and television to keep you awake during dark hours.
  • Participating in high-intensity exercise too many days in a row without allowing enough time for proper rest and recovery.

You can probably sense the general direction I’m taking with this list.

So now moving forward.

Introducing Cortisol

To explain why too much stress is bad I am going to focus on the single hormone, CORTISOL, which as you know, is released every single time you experience a stressor and elicit a “fight or flight” stress response.

Now cortisol is not inherently bad.

Cortisol’s primary job is to increase your blood glucose during stressful moments to ensure that your brain and muscles have enough fuel to work with. Cortisol is also a powerful anti-inflammatory hormone used to speed up tissue repair.

Furthermore, cortisol is the hormone that helps you wake up in the morning (Melatonin is the hormone that helps to get you to sleep at night). Normally, cortisol production follows a diurnal cycle where blood levels peak in the morning and then gradually decrease as the day progresses.*

However, when this pattern is out of whack and cortisol is chronically elevated, it can create a host of issues such as:

  • Weakened immune system functioning (leading to an increased risk of significant disease including high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer).
  • Suppression of pituitary function, which leads to lower Testosterone levels and an overall imbalance in hormones.
  • Impaired digestion and metabolism
  • Increased fat storage, and thus, weight gain.

I’m going to guess that you want no part in any of those issues.

Furthermore, while you can stay in a state of excess cortisol production for a long time, at some point the excessive stimulation and message to secrete more cortisol continuously being sent to your adrenal glands is going to put a lot of wear and tear on them.

Eventually this will lead to weakened adrenal function.

When you’re in a state of low adrenal function, the output of cortisol switches from being chronically high to chronically low. Symptoms of chronically low cortisol look like:

  • Trouble getting up in the morning/ general morning grogginess
  • Need for caffeine to wake you up in the morning, and keep you going throughout the day
  • Cravings for salt or salty foods
  • Cravings sugar/sweets, caffeine, or cigarettes (especially later in the day)
  • General/overall fatigue throughout the day
  • Decreased libido/sex drive
  • Weak immune system; frequent colds/illness/allergies
  • Anxiety or depression
  • An “afternoon slump” around 2-4 pm
  • Dizziness/light-headed when going from sitting or lying to standing
  • Inability to recover properly/timely from exercise (exercise has you feeling “trashed” for days)
  • Brain fog or fuzziness
  • Decrease in motivation, passion, or desire
  • Decrease in memory and/or focus

Now, remember, cortisol is not inherently bad, but when it is out of balance – too high or too low – it creates some serious health issues in your body.

Now what can you do about this?

The great thing about this whole adrenal dilemma is that, in the majority of cases, you have all the power to fix it. An imbalance in cortisol is ultimately tied to the action of your adrenal glands responding to those “fight or flight” stressful situations.

All the stressors in your life are additive and cumulative. Together they combine to make up your total stress load.

Supporting adrenal function requires decreasing your overall stress load.

You can decrease your overall stress load by implementing what we’ll call “Adrenal Love” strategies, every day.

Adrenal Love strategies

1. STRESS VS. DE-STRESS EXERCISE.  Take out a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle. On one side write down all the things that “stress you out”. Write down anything and everything that creates that “fight or flight” stress response, whether it be “positive stress” or “negative stress” (cough cough, this includes intense exercise).

This exercise will make you aware of all the sources of stress in your life. Some of these stresses may be inevitable, but see if there are any you’ve written down that can easily be eliminated, or at least lessened.

Now, on the other side write down all the ways you are combating this stress, and “de-stressing”. Beside every single stress write down the way you are going to “de-stress”. For example, stress = CROSSFIT 4x week; de-stress = LONG, SLOW WALKS 2x/ week + RESTORATIVE YOGA/MOBILITY 2x/week + EPSOM SALT BATH 1x/week.

For more ways to “de-stress” head to the bullet point below.

2. Schedule some de-stressors in every single week. Your health depends on it. DE-STRESSORS INCLUDE:

      • Yoga (Slower paced classes like Beginner’s Vinyasa, Slow Flow Vinyasa, Restorative, or Yin Yoga,
      • Warm Epsom Salt Baths
      • Meditation
      • Long, slow walks
      • Spending time alone with nature
      • Rest days
      • Mobility – foam rolling, stretching, and gentle movement
      • Therapy/Counseling
      • Talking through your troubles/problems with friends/family
      • Deep, belly breathing
      • Massage
      • Mid-morning or afternoon naps

3. CLEAN UP YOUR DIET; GET RID OF FOOD-BASED STRESSORS. Three ways to get you started: Eliminate all sugar aside from natural sugars in fruit and occasionally natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup.

Avoid processed foods containing toxins such as food colorings, chemicals, artificial sweeteners, and generally anything you cannot pronounce easily.

Keep caffeinated, stimulating beverages to one (or less) a day.

4. INCORPORATE SOME SUPPLEMENTS. Adaptogenic herbs recharge your adrenal glands, thus helping your body respond to stress.

The best adaptogens include: Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Ginseng, Rhodiola, Astragalus Root, and Cordyceps Mushroom.

These can be used as powerful tools during especially stressful periods. Take one individual adaptogen for no more than 2-3 weeks at a time, and rotate them so they remain effective.

5. PRIORITIZE SLEEP. Sleep would not be a “thing” if we our bodies didn’t need it.

It is the part of our life where all the healing magic occurs. All of the organs in your body, including the adrenals, strengthen and recharge while you are sleeping.

Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every single day. Aim for 8-10 hours during the weeks when you are feeling especially stressed.


*If you’re curious about your adrenal function, a great test to look into is the “Salivary Cortisol Test” where samples of your saliva are taken at set times throughout the day to assess your cortisol output during the course of the day. Properly functioning adrenals should exhibit high output of cortisol at the beginning of the day with a decreasing trend over the course of the day.

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