What Is Cortisol and How Does It Relate to Stress?

Let's look at the connection between stress and cortisol levels and the symptoms associated with sustained stress exposure.

To date I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words about stressand more specifically, cortisol.

The reason is simple: because understanding stress IS NOT simple.

In fact, one of the most difficult concepts about understanding stress, and your relationship with it, is that there’s no ‘yes’ or ‘no’, black or white, one-size-fits-all way to address it for everyone. It’s about finding a balance of what your body needs.

Everyone’s response to stress is different.

And this is a hard concept for us to grasp to some extent. As humans, our nature is to turn things all the way off… or all the way on… but managing your specific stress levels ultimately means embracing the middle ground.

Here’s how…

Understanding Stress

The most common misconception about stress is that it is only brought on by sudden changes or disruptions in our lives. Yes, psychoemotional stress is real following experiences such as death, divorce, job loss, etc. but that is not the only form of stress in our lives.

Stress also permeates our lives following years of childhood abuse or trauma. It can also infiltrate our lives on a day to day basis through the foods we eat, sleep patterns, and exposure to toxins in products we use and the air we breathe.

In a nutshell, stress comes in any form that causes our bodies to respond and rebalance.

And to a certain degree, that’s expected… and even necessary.

The Body’s Stress Response System

We are created to respond to stress with a built-in response system that is unique to each of us. This is determined by genetics, our exposure to stress, and that of our family members (stress impacts us for generations).

Very interestingly – and surprising to most – humans require stress exposure to create the stress hormones necessary to achieve basic tasks each day. These hormones (specifically cortisol, but we’ll get to that) help us to get out of bed and march through our days.

That said, while we are made to adapt to and use stress efficiently, we are not superheroes. When stress levels get too high, it can be too much for our systems and that is when stress recovery is necessary.

The Cortisol-Stress Connection

Cortisol is a hormone created in the adrenal glands that is released in higher amounts during times of stress – but is also produced and necessary throughout the day. Healthy cortisol levels are higher in the morning and then taper off throughout the day, which is what allows us to achieve our tasks each day as previously mentioned.

Cortisol, and the normal decrease through the day, helps:

  • Wake us up with energy, focus, and memory to get things done
  • Manage all the other hormones in our bodies
  • Communicate with our immune system to respond when necessary
  • Ensure that we digest our food and get our nutrients
  • To get a good night’s sleep

Cortisol is essentially our main business manager, communicating with all the other systems in our bodies, namely the digestive system, nervous system, immune system, and endocrine (or hormone) system.

The issue is when we don’t get enough stress recovery time, and cortisol remains too high or becomes depleted. In that case, the signal from cortisol to the rest of the body systems is either too much or too little. As a result, the other systems shift their level of function as well, mainly to less function.

And as this happens, symptoms start to occur because things are no longer in balance and working at their best.

Symptoms of Unhealthy Stress Exposure without Enough Support

Let’s look more closely at the symptoms you might experience when you cortisol is thrown off by stress exposure.

  • Digestive system: Heartburn, leaky gut, IBS, reflux, ulcers, diarrhea, bloating.
  • Nervous system: Anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, mood issues, migraines.
  • Immune system: Infections, allergies, autoimmunity, and even cancer.
  • Endocrine (hormonal) system: Hypothyroid (low thyroid function), elevated blood sugar and diabetes, or menstrual and fertility issues.

These symptoms are NOT the problem. And a quick fix to suppress the symptoms won’t solve the bigger issue.

The way I look at it, these symptoms are actually indications from your body that you are being exposed to stress without enough stress recovery support.

Balancing Stress and Cortisol

Please note that I’m not blaming it all on stress. Nor am I suggesting that you aim to eliminate all stress or cortisol. We need stress and cortisol to survive and to thrive, to choose activities we enjoy and to accomplish our purpose in life.

The amount of stress that works for you is different from the amount that works for me, and the types of stress recovery we each need is unique too.

The aim is to get to know your unique stress and stress recovery needs so you can give your body what it needs to recover from stress on a daily basis, and to be resilient when major stresses come along.

Previously it was assumed that our genetics played a larger role in our health issues but recent studies show that to be untrue. In fact, genetics is only about 5-10% of the determinant of our health; we know now that our health is determined more by how we recover from stress exposure than anything else.

It does NOT have to be a mystery. By understanding your specific stress type – and how your body responds to stress – we can give you control over your health. That’s because we have tools to help cortisol levels re-optimize, and by doing that, improved signals are sent to the other health systems, and in turn, symptoms decrease or go away.

To help identify your stress type and cortisol levels, as well as how cortisol has caused other imbalances in your body, we can:

  • Test your cortisol levels – and I consider this to be THE BEST STRESS TEST there is. By measuring your cortisol through either saliva or urine in the morning, afternoon and night, we can see if your levels are too high or too low based on the time of day.
  • Use health panels to check for food sensitivities, leaky gut, imbalanced gut bacteria, hormones, and neurotransmitters.

Once we know what is out of balance, I can guide you to rebalance. And amazingly, when we use herbs and nutrients to support your body to bring cortisol levels back to where they should be, your body notices and responds by sending a more balanced signal to your digestion, immune system, nervous system and all of your hormones.

In the way, stress recovery is possible. And along the way, we learn what your body needs in order to maintain balance, even while stressed.

Working with Dr. Doni

This is NOT an approach you will find at every doctor’s office… and frankly, it’s frustrating. I have patients that come to me after being told for years that they’re “fine” or “just a little stressed” because their blood work seems normal. Thankfully, they follow their gut and continue searching for answers… which leads them to me.

Once they do, they experience a ripple effect of symptom relief. By getting to the root of the problems – and discovering how you specifically respond to stress – we can customize my Dr. Doni Protocol to address what you need.

We do this through herbs, nutrients, diet and/or lifestyle changes, and activities that rebalance your stress response.

After over two decades working on my protocol for both my own health and that of my patients’, I know how to help your body recover from stress. Symptoms, which were just an indicator light in the first place, DO GO AWAY as multiple systems are alleviated of stress exposure at once – for good.

Ways to Recover From Stress NOW

To start your stress recovery journey, you can take my FREE 7-day Stress Reset Challenge.

You can find products to support stress recovery in my Dr. Doni Store such as Dr. Doni’s Adrenal Support for healthy cortisol levels or Dr. Doni’s Calming Support to help you get out of stress mode.

You can also read my books, Stress Remedy or Stress Warrior.

To learn about my stress programs, please visit here.

And finally, you can schedule a consultation – to meet either in the office or by phone to further discuss your specific needs.

As always, wellness wishes to you!

–Dr. Doni
10th January 2020