What is Cortisol Deficiency and Why Is It a Cause for Concern?

Very few people know about cortisol deficiency, but it is a problem which affects many people and can have significant impacts on physical and emotional health. Cortisol is vital to many of the body’s processes, and when cortisol levels are out of whack this can lead to extreme tiredness, mood swings, and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular health issues. 

Cortisol deficiency can also be an indicator of underlying health problems, so it is important to identify any cortisol issues and seek appropriate treatment as early as possible. In this article we will explain cortisol deficiency, common causes of the condition, look at the health implications and effects, and discuss how cortisol deficiency can be identified and addressed.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone, and along with adrenaline manages the body’s “fight or flight” response to a dangerous situation. This means that cortisol produced in the adrenal cortex and released into the body in times of stress, as well as through hard, physical work and competitive sports. 

In a healthy situation, cortisol levels will be highest first thing in the morning, causing the body to wake up. Levels will then decrease gradually throughout the day, meaning the body can rest at night. If levels of cortisol are too high overnight, this can cause sleep disorders.

Cortisol is important because it plays a key role in several of our body’s normal metabolic processes. It facilitates extra energy to deal with situations of physical or mental stress. Cortisol also plays an important part in our immune system by boosting anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic processes. Overall, cortisol levels are important for cardiovascular health, gastrointestinal health, the immune system and brain functions.

What is Cortisol Deficiency?

Cortisol deficiency is a condition which occurs when levels of cortisol in the body are too low. Because cortisol is key to so many processes in the human body, cortisol deficiency can greatly impact both physical and mental wellbeing. 

In some cases, severe cortisol deficiency can indicate a medical condition which will require professional treatment.

 What Causes Cortisol Deficiency?

Cortisol deficiency can be caused by a variety of factors. An infection in the adrenal cortex can cause low cortisol levels, as can adrenal fatigue and deficiency in the adrenal glands, which damages the production of cortisol. Cortisol deficiency can also be an indicator of dysfunction in the pituitary gland. This is because the pituitary gland distributes another hormone, ACTH, which in turn stimulates the adrenal cortex to distribute cortisol.

Symptoms of Cortisol Deficiency 

Cortisol deficiency may manifest in the following:

  • Tiredness, feelings of weakness and exhaustion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Mood swings, irritability, nervousness and depressive moods
  • Weight lost or difficulty gaining weight
  • Digestive problems
  • Other unexplained health problems

Particularly over the long term, low cortisol levels call lead to “burnout”, or prolonged emotional exhaustion as a reaction to chronic stress. As discussed above, the adrenal cortex produces cortisol in response to stressful situations. However, if this stress is maintained over time, the adrenal cortex can become exhausted meaning cortisol production suffers, and there will actually be less, rather than more, cortisol in the body. This can lead to a low term cortisol deficiency.

What Can You Do About Cortisol Deficiency 

Services like verisana.com let you perform an at-home test to measure your cortisol levels both in the morning and at various points during the day using a saliva test. Performing multiple tests like this allows you to see at which times your cortisol levels are at their highest and lowest. If your test results indicate levels of cortisol which are outside the normal range, whether too high or too low, you should discuss the results with your doctor. 

Just as cortisol deficiency is a cause for concern, having excessively high levels of cortisol can also have negative health impacts. If your tests return abnormal cortisol levels, your doctor will suggest a course of treatment which may including prescribing medication. Lifestyle changes, such as getting enough sleep, exercising moderately and reducing stress, can also help to balance cortisol levels.

If you suspect you have abnormally low or high levels of cortisol it is important to take appropriate steps to address the condition, not only because of the wide-ranging impacts on your physical and mental wellbeing, but also because this could well be a sign of underlying health issues. Testing your body’s cortisol levels and seeking appropriate treatment from a medical professional could make a huge difference to your symptoms and your overall wellbeing.

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