High cortisol gets all the limelight because of its reputation as a stress hormone. But when our cortisol levels fall too low or when they are low at the wrong times of day (i.e. in the morning when we need it to wake up) then it can be just as debilitating. Low cortisol causes us to feel tired, weak and unmotivated.
- Fatigue and weakness
- Low blood pressure
- Blood sugar irregularity
- Low mood and irritability
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Often sick
Basically we can feel in a zombie state because our body needs a certain amount of cortisol to get up and go.
Low cortisol causes
How can we end up with low cortisol? It can happen due to organic problems with organs such as the adrenal glands which produce cortisol or the pituitary gland which sends the signal to stimulate cortisol production. In this case there are dectectable inflammation or damage to the tissues which can be measured with medical tests. Low cortisol causes can also be functional conditions where there is no visible problem with the tissue but it is not functioning as it should be.
There are several causes of low cortisol including:
- Addison’s disease (adrenal)
- Congenital hyperplasia (adrenal)
- Pituitary gland failure e.g. brain injury or tumour
- Chronic stress
The first three low cortisol causes are conditions you need to work with a medical professional. Today I will focus on the final one – stress. Low cortisol can occur after a long period of stress (high cortisol) when we reach what is commonly known as the burnout state.
In this case, cortisol levels will be unlikely to fall to levels that your doctor would consider a “medical emergency” but still low enough to affect the way you feel and function in your life.
The mechanism of low cortisol in the burnout state is not fully understood even within functional medicine. One theory is that either the adrenal glands which produce cortisol and other hormones can’t keep up and eventually fail to produce enough. This is known as adrenal fatigue in the alternative health world.
The other theory is that you continue to produce cortisol but after a while our cells become resistant to its effects. You might be left with that “tired but wired” feeling or feel like every minor stressor sends you into a meltdown. Without adequate cortisol to give us that warrior mentality we become much less resilient and more sensitive to stress.
What to do if you have low cortisol
Whatever the cause of low cortisol, it’s not a fun state to be in! If you think you might have low cortisol, you can consider a saliva based test. Forth offer these as postal tests for any of you living in the UK, I like the phrase “test don’t guess” and it can be helpful to have a baseline measurement before implementing any changes. That way you can more easily see what is working and what isn’t.
However there are some helpful lifestyle changes you can make to help raise cortisol naturally. These are generally low risk so you can try them even if you aren’t sure if you have low cortisol. The most important thing to do if you are experiencing low cortisol (besides speaking to your doctor) is to reduce your stress levels as much as possible. You can also support your body with good nutrition and nourishing practices such as restorative yoga and yoga nidra.
For nutrition I recommend the same protocol as for high cortisol to restore the nutrients lost through stress – check out this post for more info. Eating regularly to support blood sugar balance is also especially important when dealing with low cortisol. By this I mean balanced meals and snacks every 3 hours, making sure to combine carbs with fat or protein (or both) every time you eat. Making sure to incorporate adequate electrolytes too and by that I mean don’t be afraid to salt your food!
Some other lifestyle tips for boosting low cortisol:
- Dance or zumba to raise energy levels and cortisol
- Get enough sunlight especially in the morning hours
- Relaxation and gentle yoga before bed to improve sleep
- Breathwork practices focusing on the inhale to boost energy
Supplements for low cortisol causes
My favourite 2 supplements for adrenal health are Ashwaganda and Shilajit. Ashwaganda or Indian ginseng is an adapagenic herb which is used in Ayurveda to support the body during times of stress. It may help to reduce anxiety, improve sleep and balance cortisol levels. Shilajit is an amazing natural supplement for remineralising after periods of stress. It contains the full spectrum of natural elements plus fulvic acid which supports delivery of nutrients to the cell.
I really don’t recommend taking a lot of supplements as it can overburden the liver. It’s much better to take one or 2 high quality supplements targeted to your needs. I found a great supplement from a UK company called Nature Provides which includes both Ashwanganda and Shilajit and it’s now my go to. The recommended serving is 2 capsules but 1 gives 500mg of Shilajit which is already enough and means this bottle lasts 3 months.
Another great supplement for low blood pressure related to low cortisol is licorice. This can be taken as licorice tea or in tablet form if you don’t like the taste. These could be very useful for any of you dealing with stress, adrenal fatigue or chronic fatigue but make sure to do your research and check with your doctor before adding any new supplements into your routine. Especially licorice it’s important to make sure you don’t have high blood pressure already before taking this supplement.
Over to you…
If you would like to work with me to balance your hormones and improve your health, contact me to set up a free 15 minute discovery call. I am a nutritionist, yoga teacher and women’s wellness coach. We work together using a combination of modalities to support your individual needs and help you to feel your best.
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