Low Cortisol

Dearest Reader,

This information is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose or highlight imperfections. You've likely landed here following your results of my quiz at YourHormoneQuiz.com. No matter what you discover in these results, you're beautiful and perfect as you are. You're good enough and trying hard enough. We're all unique and will experience hormonal shifts differently. This information is here to highlight that, despite what we've been told, we're not just little men — our bodies work differently — and if our hormones have us feeling less than our best, we absolutely can do something about it. My aim is to support and empower you on your journey, where you need and want it. Take what you need, leave what you don't. No judgement here, just good honest support.

XO, Laurie

Low Cortisol

This hormone type most often follows a period of high stress — or high cortisol. If your cortisol hormones tend to be on the lower side, you might notice low energy or fatigue, low blood sugar or blood pressure, dizziness when standing up, muscle weakness, sleep issues, low libido, salt cravings, memory issues, depression or anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, dependence on caffeine or sugar for energy, or even weight issues.

As we’re all wonderfully unique, this hormone type will present itself differently in different people. You’ll likely have different symptoms from your friend. Some women may have few symptoms while others have many.

It could happen in conjunction with high cortisol or on its own. Often, if you struggle with low cortisol, the body or mind is having a tough time coping with any stress at all.

Unlike our sex hormones, cortisol follows a diurnal pattern, meaning it varies throughout the day in line with the sun and our wake and sleep patterns. Normally, it would be low upon waking and then rise to get us up and going. In the afternoon it begins to fall before going low at bedtime, just in time to get the sleep we need. By going low at night, it then “turns on” other hormones that help with sleep, weight management, growth, repair and restoration while we snooze.

Below is an example of my cortisol hormone pattern visible on Precision Analytical’s DUTCH test. You see the diurnal pattern for my cortisol at one period in time.

In the morning my levels were low and in the afternoon, they were high.  So you can imagine that I might not have felt the get-up-and-go of cortisol that morning as my cortisol was in the low range. And in the afternoon, I likely had symptoms of high cortisol.

Each person will feel different at different levels within the range. It’s a matter of finding what gets you feeling your best and discovering ways to maintain that. Thankfully, there’s quite a bit we can do about it.

What causes cortisol hormones to go low

Decreased cortisol output is often the body’s way of adapting to certain stressors. It happens after a period of chronic stress of any type, or often a combination of many types of stressors combined.

Decreased cortisol output is a protective response happening at the level of the brain — the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands, the master signalers of hormone production.

One of these situations could be happening:

  • The hypothalamus isn’t talking to the pituitary gland (the pituitary signals the adrenal gland to make cortisol hormones).
  • The pituitary gland isn’t talking to the adrenal glands.
  • The adrenal glands are not responsive to the signaling hormones and therefore not making (enough) cortisol when signaled.
  • The body is quickly converting the active hormone, cortisol, into the storage form, cortisone — often as a protective mechanism and means that even though you produce enough, it’s being deactivated by your body.

Unlike our sex hormones, cortisol follows a diurnal pattern, meaning it’s varies throughout the day in line with the sun and our wake and sleep patterns.

Stress comes in so many packages

It’s important to recognize the many faces of stress that could be impacting your hormones. Stress and cortisol issues are often multifactorial.

These include but are not limited to:

  • Inadequate quality sleep and rest for your body type, activity level, and current hormone status
  • Poor diet, high in processed, packaged foods and low in nutrient density
  • Inadequate diet for your body type, activity level, and current hormone status
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Dehydration or excess hydration
  • High blood sugar, low blood sugar and blood sugar imbalance
  • Allergies, including food allergies and intolerances
  • Common environmental toxins found in processed or inorganic foods, beauty or cleaning products and other everyday items
  • Over or under exercise for your body and current hormone status
  • Overworking and lack of adequate downtime or time-off
  • Toxic environment, relationships or people
  • Toxic or unsupportive thoughts, including and especially our own
  • Noise or air pollution
  • Chronic infections, inflammation or pain
  • Lack of connection, support or community
  • Lack of fun, purpose or fulfillment
  • Lack of peace, quiet or stillness for being, or for reflection
  • Recreational drug use
  • Alcohol use (even light or moderate use could add stress to the body)
  • Cigarette smoke, including second hand exposure
  • And more…

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Low cortisol might look like:

  • Feeling tired after a full night’s sleep
  • Feeling burnout or “fried” or emotionally exhausted
  • Feeling the need for naps most days
  • Energy crashing in the afternoon
  • Dependence on caffeine, stimulants or sweets or carbs for energy
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low motivation and drive
  • Sleep issues
  • Low libido
  • Salt cravings
  • Tendency to be easily overwhelmed
  • Difficulty coping with stress
  • Exercise intolerance or reduced intolerance
  • Feeling dizzy when standing up too quickly
  • Afternoon headaches
  • Loss of body strength or feeling of weakness with usual activities
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sounds or smells
  • Slow recovery from exercise or illness
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Cognitive decline or poor memory recall
  • Feeling confused or unable to make decisions
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Heart racing
  • And more…

Cortisol imbalances will present differently in different people. You might have a few or many of the above symptoms while someone else could have completely different ones. We’re all wonderfully unique.

What we can do about low cortisol:

Restoring the cortisol balance most often requires — first and foremost — addressing stress as well as getting back to basics by reestablishing a strong foundation for health. That includes a supportive diet and lifestyle for your body type and current hormone needs.

Reducing your total stress load is key while nourishing your neuroendocrine system with stress reducing and stress managing practices, such as improving sleep, optimizing nutrition and type of exercise, shifting mindset and unsupportive thought patterns, and sometimes targeted supplementation.

Not sure where to start?

Here are 3 easy and free ways you can get started right now:

  1. Decrease moderate and high intensity exercise. Choose gentler forms of movement such as restorative yoga, gentle Pilates or walking to ease up your stress load and help restore a healthy stress response.
  2. Respect your circadian rhythms. Syncing up your sleep and light exposure with the daylight hours (especially reducing blue light in the evenings).
  3. Book a call with me (see below) to discuss how you can get your cortisol levels back in balance.

Check out this post for even more ways to get your hormones back in harmony.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, manage, or treat disease or serious conditions. Always check with your doctor before making any changes. It's important to consult a well-informed health practitioner for personal advice about your situation before relying on general information we're all wonderfully unique.

Laurie Villarreal, FNLP, CHWC, FNS, LMC, CPT, RYT

Hi, I'm Laurie, a functional nutritionist and board certified health coach, athlete, dog-mom, and biohacking adventure-lover. After having struggled for years to find lasting solutions for my own debilitating hormone-related symptoms, I created my online practice to begin helping other active, driven women get the support they need. I now help  women around the world elevate their health, energy, business and life by optimizing their hormones with personalized nutrition and lifestyle tweaks. Together, we discover new tools and strategies that keep you showing up at your best so you can play even bigger in your life and work.

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