We like cortisol because it can do good things for our bodies when in the appropriate amounts for our body. When we are under stress, cortisol is higher and does things that seem desirable to have all the time—such as speeding up metabolism. However, maintaining elevated cortisol for an extended period of time weakens the body. The body was not designed to sustain large amounts of cortisol for long periods of time.
The First Phase of Elevated Cortisol
In the beginning, you may feel fabulous. You are under stress and the cortisol pulsing through your body makes you feel superhuman. And in fact, you kind of are. Cortisol enhances adrenalin, which can make you stronger and more energetic in the short run.
As Time Goes On
When cortisol is elevated for longer periods of time, you begin to lose your superhuman abilities. As those good feelings subside, they are replaced with symptoms—and lots of them. Some of these symptoms can include
- Increased appetite and cravings
- Weight gain in the waist
- Increased risk for gut infections and bacterial overgrowth
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased risk for illness
- Bone loss
- Depressed moods
- Less will power
- Lowered memory capacity
- Loss of muscle mass
- Low libido
- Low energy
- Low muscle tone
After researching PCOS for so long, symptom lists like this sometimes make me say, “Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I didn’t know. Everything leads to these symptoms.”
In a way, that’s true. Our bodies have limited ways of telling us there is a problem. Small babies can only cry to let us know they are hungry, tired, sad, bored, uncomfortable, or dirty. Our bodies are held to similar limitations.
Let’s look at what is underneath some of these symptoms in order to understand how too much cortisol is making you tired and forgetful.
Why Elevated Cortisol Makes Me Feel Bad
Increased appetite and cravings. Cortisol increases your blood sugar. When your blood sugar goes up, your insulin goes up. Insulin helps lower your blood sugar. When your blood sugar gets low, your body calls for food. Cravings often play a role here because your body is asking for quick energy. You give your body quick energy (all while cortisol is increasing blood sugar) and get another dose of insulin. Rinse and repeat.
Loss of muscle mass. As mentioned above, cortisol raises blood sugar. Your body will begin to eat up muscle mass in order to create that blood sugar to handle the stresses being put upon it.
Sleep disturbances. High cortisol lowers melatonin, which helps you sleep at night. High cortisol also keeps you awake. Not a lot of good, solid sleep happening here.
Weight gain in the waist. This is not an “I indulged too much over the holidays” kind of fat. It is an inflammatory, hormonal kind of fat. The increased insulin in your body from the blood sugar fluctuations discussed above increases something called interleukin 6. Interleukin 6 creates a lot of inflammation in the body. It happens all over, but can concentrate in the waist.
Increased risk for gut infections and bacterial overgrowth. High cortisol suppresses secretory IgA. Secretory IgA is abundant in your intestines (gut) and is the barbed wire for the cells—keeping all the nasty stuff out. With high cortisol weakening the barbed wire, your gut is at greater risk for gut infections and bacterial overgrowth.
Lower moods, will power, and memory capacity. When the brain is overwhelmed with too much cortisol, frontal lobe capacity is lowered (mood and will power) and the hippocampus does not function properly (memory loss).
Low libido, low energy, and low muscle tone. High cortisol often requires the hormone pregnenelone to reduce its production of sex hormones in favor of producing more cortisol. A decrease in sex hormones means your sex drive is down, your energy is down, and your muscle tone is down.
Increased risk for illness. With high cortisol comes an imbalance in the immune system (TH2 is too high, TH1 is too low). In addition, studies have shown that bodies heal during appropriate nighttime sleep. Immune system imbalances coupled with sleep disturbances increases risk for illness.
Hypothyroidism. Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) is lowered when there is too much cortisol in the system. Low TSH blocks the conversion of T4 to T3, leading to hypothyroidism. It is possible that a diagnosis of hypothyroidism could be a secondary issue if the cause is high cortisol.
Elevated Cortisol is No Bueno
After an initial feel-good period, high cortisol can harm your body in several different ways, ranging from hypothyroidism to gut infections. In the next post, we will talk about how low cortisol is not exciting either—and often occurs after a period of having high cortisol.