Adrenal fatigue — the effects of high cortisol levels and what you can do about it
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
“If only I had the energy I used to...” We’ve probably all said these words
at some point. And at our practice, we’re continuing to see an epidemic of women
suffering from constant stress that leads to high cortisol levels, adrenal imbalance
and complete exhaustion!
In addition to fatigue, women with adrenal imbalance may experience weakness, moodiness
or depression, hair loss, weight gain and dozens of other symptoms — some very serious.
Symptoms and health risks of sustained high cortisol levels
- Fatigue and weakness
- Suppression of the immune system
- Muscle and bone loss
- Moodiness or depression
- Skin problems
- Hair loss
- Autoimmune disorders
- Insulin resistance
- Thyroid imbalance
- Weight gain
- Aches and pains from inflammation
- Lower sex drive
Do you suffer from adrenal imbalance? Find out now with our Adrenal Health
That’s why every woman who comes to our clinic with any of these symptoms undergoes
a series of tests that evaluate markers of stress, including cortisol and DHEA levels.
The results — in over thousands of cases — are remarkably consistent: only 20–25%
have cortisol levels consistent with healthy adrenal function, while 75–80% suffer
impaired function, in various patterns ranging from mild to more serious.
At Women to Women, we describe this as adrenal imbalance or adrenal dysfunction,
although you may have also heard it called “adrenal fatigue,” “adrenal exhaustion,”
or “adrenal burnout.” It occurs when the adrenal glands are putting out the wrong
levels of stress hormones — either too low or too high — in relation to the amount
that’s needed. This mismatch often results in troubling symptoms.
If you’re like many women, you probably can’t imagine how it’s even possible for
you to reduce stress and the negative effects it has on your body. But let me assure
you, we can show you how to get you back to feeling as energetic and vibrant as
you ever have!
How chronic stress leads to high cortisol, adrenal imbalance and severe symptoms
Are you stressed around the clock? Most women today are — whether the stress is
routine or dramatic, physical or emotional, perceived or real, terror or joy.
With stress, your adrenals rally your body into a “fight or flight” survival response
by increasing adrenaline and cortisol production. No matter what the cause of the
stress, your body sees it as an emergency.
Each and every challenge to the mind and body makes demands on the adrenal glands
- Lack of sleep
- Work stress
- Personality conflicts
- Yo-yo dieting
- Relationship turmoil
- Reliance on stimulants like caffeine and carbs
- Digestive problems
- Too much exercise
- Illness, infection or surgery
- Unresolved emotional issues
- Overwhelming responsibilities at home
In its normal function, cortisol helps us meet these challenges by converting fats
and proteins into energy, keeping us alert, balancing electrolytes, calibrating
heart beat and pressure, and counteracting inflammation. In the short run, that’s
great — even protective and restorative.
However, problems can develop as today’s relentlessly busy lifestyle forces your
adrenal glands to be on constant “high alert” resulting in sustained high levels
Sustained high cortisol levels are dangerous because they:
- Slow down healing and normal cell regeneration.
- Co-opt parent molecules needed to make other vital hormones
- Impair digestion, metabolism and mental function
- Interfere with healthy endocrine function
- Weaken your immune system
When your adrenals are required to constantly respond to stress, they eventually
have to struggle to produce cortisol, as well as other key hormones such as DHEA
and the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This difficulty in
producing hormones becomes especially critical as a woman enters perimenopause and
menopause and needs the full support of her adrenals to prevent extreme sex hormone
The damaging effects of high cortisol
We see that adrenal imbalance in women tends to peak between the ages of 35 and
55. Most women can recognize themselves in one of the following descriptions:
- You’re always active and feel “wired.” Your system is constantly
fueled by adrenaline and cortisol to create what feels like a continual state of
hyper-energy. Yet you often feel drained.
- You can’t get up in the morning — but you can’t sleep at night.
Your natural 24-cycle of energy and relaxation is off-balance. If you’re able to
fall asleep, you may wake up in the middle of the night fully alert.
- You have no energy — period. You feel exhausted all the time. Even
getting out of bed often feels like a challenge. You may also experience intense
cravings and unexplained weight gain.
Adrenal imbalance may be a factor in many other serious conditions, including fibromyalgia,
hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, arthritis, and more.
Normalize cortisol levels to restore adrenal balance
In our experience, women with mild to moderate adrenal imbalance can have several
options that can help them feel significantly better while keeping symptoms from
becoming more severe. The key is taking the right steps to normalize cortisol levels
and restore healthy adrenal function. You can take immediate action by asking yourself
these simple questions:
Are you eating in tune with your natural cortisol curve?
- When you eat your meals is just as important as what you eat to rebalance
your adrenal glands. The goal is to achieve more stable energy levels throughout
the day, which you can accomplish by eating three balanced meals with two snacks.
- What you eat does make a difference too! Try to reduce refined carbohydrates — such
as sugar, flour, potatoes, and white rice — which cause stressful ups and downs
in your blood sugar that can lead to adrenal imbalance. We know this can be difficult,
so just do the best you can. The goal is progress, rather than perfection!
How can nutritional supplements support your adrenal glands?
- High-quality vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids help support a healthy
metabolism and hormonal balance, which contribute to adrenal health. Our
Essential Nutrients, with 30 vitamins and minerals, is a, easy-to-take formulation
that builds a strong nutritional foundation.
- Specific herbal supplements, such as astragalus root and Siberian ginseng, are effective
at reducing the negative side effects of stress. Others, such as passionflower,
produce calming effects and encourage sleep. Many of these herbs are found in our
natural formulations Adaptisol
Which lifestyle changes are best to restore adrenal balance?
- We can’t always reduce stress, but we can take steps to reduce its effects on our
lives. Take time to understand where your stress is coming from, and then think
about how you’ll make changes that are right for you and your lifestyle. It’s helpful
to make a list of stressors that interfere with your wellbeing, especially those
that are ongoing or self-imposed.
- Get more rest. Your body needs down time to heal!
Never underestimate the power of perceived stress
Guilt, lingering pain from past hurts, self-destructive habits, unresolved relationship
problems — your past and present emotional experience may be functioning as an ever-present
stressor in your life. Dealing directly with these problems will be far more beneficial
to your health than spending a lifetime compensating for the stress they create.
We also recommend you rule out the possibility of any serious underlying medical
issues causing your symptoms by having a full physical exam.
In all but the most extreme cases, we expect women to see dramatic improvement in
four to six months. With mild to moderate adrenal imbalance the turnaround can be
faster. Remember, you may feel as though you’re just too tired to make changes now,
but you’ve already taken an important first step! And by moving forward in incremental
stages, you will build the strength you need to stay with it. You’ll love how you
feel when you do!
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References and further reading
on the effects of stress and high cortisol
Last Modified Date: 10/11/2011
Principal Authors: Marcy Holmes, NP, Certified Menopause Clinician &
Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP