Goldilocks likes it just right. Not too hot. Not too cold. Not too big. Not too small. Just right.
It’s the same with cortisol levels in your body. You want to be in homeostasis, or balance. You want to be just right. If you imagine a bell curve, homeostasis sits on the left side of the curve, in the middle of the slope.
When a stressful event happens you move up to the top of the bell curve and into the acute phase. The stressor could be mental or physical. You could be stressed from being chased by a bear or frantic about a deadline or your blood sugar drops too low. Either way, your body releases cortisol to deal with the stressor.
When you’re in the acute phase you feel really good. You have energy and you’re focused. You feel less pain because cortisol is a painkiller. Many people feel this way in their 20s. You can exercise all day long, drink too much, stay up late and still have plenty of energy to do it again the next day. Sound familiar?
But if you’re under stress all the time you stay in the acute phase and you don’t go back down into homeostasis. Again, this could be emotional stress like losing a loved one or physical stress like a pathogen in your gut. Eventually your body won’t be able to compensate. Your cortisol levels become dysregulated. Instead of feeling great you may start to experience symptoms like weight gain around your belly, blood-sugar imbalance, sleep issues that leave you not feeling rested in the morning.
At some point your body won’t be able to handle all the stress and you’ll slide down the right side of the bell curve into what’s called the compensatory phase. In this phase you’re not responding well to stress, and you can tell. Your steroid hormones like DHEA, progesterone, estrogen and testosterone start getting out of balance. You may have many common but vague complaints like low energy or poor digestion. You are sick more often because your immune system isn’t strong. If you have tests done by your doctor because you don’t feel right they often come back “normal.” You may self-medicate with caffeine, supplements and over-the-counter drugs to feel better and have more energy.
It takes more than supplements, diet and exercise to get back in balance, though. You could be eating healthy and getting plenty of exercise and taking the latest superfood supplements, but nothing will help. You’ve been under stress for so long that your body can’t adapt anymore. You have to get rid of stressors and work to get your body back in balance.
What’s interesting is that the cortisol levels look exactly the same when you’re in homeostasis as when you’re in the compensatory phase. They’re directly across from each other on the bell curve. That’s why your bloodwork for cortisol will be in the normal range, even though you don’t feel well.
Many of my clients come to me in the compensatory phase. They don’t feel good anymore and they know that something isn’t right. Even though their labs look normal they don’t feel normal. They’re having sleep problems and other minor symptoms, and nothing they’ve tried has helped.
If your body doesn’t get back in balance you’ll eventually slide into exhaustion. As you can imagine, this doesn’t feel good at all. Your body enters a catabolic state, which means it’s breaking down. You have many chronic symptoms and so you may seek alternative or medical treatment. You may be diagnosed with a disease or disorder or two, including chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. You’re tired all day and don’t have energy to exercise at all. You’re in the exhaustive phase, and you’re exhausted.
If you’re experiencing any symptoms at all, including sleep problems, you have cortisol regulation issues and you’re nowhere near perfect health. The longer you wait to address it the longer and harder it’s going to be getting back in balance. My clients in the exhaustive phase take longer to improve, but if they stick with the program they eventually get better.
I hope this explains how chronic stress affects the body and why there’s no quick fix to get back in balance. A comprehensive hormone test like the DUTCH test will tell us what’s going on with your cortisol and how it’s being used in your body. Knowing what stage of cortisol dysregulation you’re in will help me know what changes to suggest and how to help you get back in balance.
If you can’t sleep there’s a reason why and we can find out what it is.
As always, wishing you a good night’s sleep.