Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal gland of the endocrine system that binds to the glucocorticoid receptor which is present in the cells of all vertebrates. The glucocorticoids are responsible for regulating the metabolism of glucose, their steroidal structure and their synthesis takes place in the adrenal cortex. The chief functions of cortisol include suppressing the immune system, assisting in the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates and increasing blood sugar through gluconeogenesis.
Gluconeogenesis is the metabolic process by which glucose is generated from non-carbohydrate carbon substrate such as glucogenic amino acids, lactate and glycerol. This is an important function of the cortisol as this keeps the blood glucose level steady by averting hypoglycemia. Low cortisol symptoms, indicating diminished cortisol levels, are signs of adrenal fatigue or overuse. Prolonged and regular exposure to stressful situations leave our adrenal glands vulnerable to exhaustion and such exhaustion manifests in many adverse symptoms.
Symptoms of Low Levels of Cortisol
Cortisols suppress the inflammatory process and healing process by suppressing the immune system. All these reactions put our system on a red alert, prompting our survival instinct to direct us towards rest and medical care.
Typical low cortisol symptoms include:
- Shaky limbs
- Feeling of panic
- Unexplained paranoia
- Overall weakness
- Persistent fatigue
- Getting stressed easily
- Emotional hypersensitivity
- Sudden and frequent temperamental outbursts
- Mild to severe hypoglycemia
- Headache and body pain
- Muscle weakness
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Severe motion sickness
- Dark under-eye circles
- Difficulty falling asleep and disturbed sleep
- IBS symptoms
- Worsening allergic conditions
- Sudden bouts of extreme hunger
- Caffeine inducing drowsiness rather than wakefulness
- Frequent urination
- Flu like indications
- Hypersensitivity of skin
- Inability to concentrate
- Feeling nauseous when facing even mildly stressful conditions
- Diarrhea like symptoms
- Bad palps
- Low blood pressure
- Craving for salt
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
Low Cortisol Causes
Causes of decreased cortisol levels include various complex adverse glandular conditions which may be induced by excessive physical stress, trauma or other exhaustion.
Some common factors responsible for low cortisol levels are:
- Adrenal Insufficiency: This condition is brought about when the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient amount of cortisol due to exhaustion or damage to these glands. Adrenal problems can also be hereditary.
- Hypothalamic Indifference: When the cortisol level is already low, the hypothalamus stops responding to such low levels of cortisol, leading to adrenal insufficiency and further lowering of cortisol level. It works as a vicious cycle - less cortisol leads to even lesser cortisol!
- Physical Shocks and Traumas: Physical traumas such as hemorrhages, pregnancy and other major physically taxing processes may impact the pituitary gland and inhibit the production of ACTH. This in-turn leads to low blood cortisol levels.
- Adrenal Glands Removal: Removal of adrenal glands, which is extremely rare and is resorted to only if cancerous growths are detected on them, cause high production of ACTH, leading to diminished cortisol production.
Low Cortisol Levels and Weight Gain
Due to the fatigue and overall lethargy induced by low cortisol levels, it becomes difficult to follow fitness and weight loss routines. Recent studies also have revealed that besides high cortisol levels, low cortisol and weight gain are related! Decreased cortisol levels especially encourage gain around the abdominal region, and we all know, abdominal fat is the most difficult to lose! Low levels of cortisol translates into low metabolism and this leads to weight gain.
Lately, cortisol blockers claim to be able to tackle such cortisol related weight issues but before you go around popping them, do consult your doctor! As most cases of cortisol level dip are caused by adrenal fatigue, it is not recommended to lose such weight through aerobic exercise as this would further contribute to such glandular fatigue. Rather, more gradual and calming exercises such as Yoga may be helpful in both, weight loss and stress reduction.
Low Cortisol Diet and Treatment
When suffering from adrenal fatigue, make sure your normal body glucose level is maintained at all times. For this, you must eat nutritious food at regular intervals. Adding salt to your diet would help, unless your adrenal fatigue is accompanied by high blood pressure, which is not very common. Add lots of proteins, healthy fats, carbohydrates and bright-colored vegetables to your diet but go a little easy on potassium and fructose rich foods such as fruits.
Treatment for this condition includes mostly lifestyle modifications which introduce relaxation and extradite stress from one's life. Avoiding white carbohydrates, hydrogenated fats, caffeine, chocolate and junk food goes a long way in contributing towards recovery. Dietary supplements such as Vitamins C, E, B Complex, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Magnesium Citrate and trace minerals such as Zinc, Selenium, Chromium, Molybdenum, Copper and Iodine are included in treating decreased cortisol levels. Natural adrenal fatigue treatment includes herbal remedies consisting of Licorice, Ashwagandha, Maca Root, Korean and Siberian Ginseng, etc.
Talking to an endocrinologist on noticing any of the aforementioned symptoms for a moderate period of time should be the first step, followed by strictly adhering to the dietary and medicinal prescriptions of the specialist. A relaxed lifestyle coupled with de-stressing activities such as Yoga and meditation are highly recommended to speed up the recovery. Take care today to live a healthy tomorrow! Wish you health and vigor throughout life!