Why Cortisol Is Good for You

by Jordan Reasoner

surprising-cortisol-facts

Low cortisol is the most common pattern we’ve seen in 100’s of labs from people with digestive problems.

It’s almost like an epidemic. We have yet to work with someone suffering from digestive problems that doesn’t have varying degrees of low cortisol.

You might know about cortisol… many people call it the “The Stress Hormone,” saying it shouldn’t get too high. And that is true, chronically elevated cortisol has its fair share of negative effects on the body.

But while everyone is pointing fingers at high cortisol for causing health problems, it’s becoming apparent to us that someone needs to look at the opposite side of this problem.

Because Chronically Low Cortisol Can Be Worse…


Most people don’t even realize how important cortisol is when dealing with chronic illness. Cortisol (a glucocorticoid) is necessary for several major body processes to function normally. It’s integral to blood sugar regulation, proper immune function, blood pressure, and the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

And when it gets low, these systems begin to have problems.

For example, here’s a few symptoms related to low cortisol:

  • Fatigue
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Poor response and “crashing” during stress
  • Increased allergies and environmental sensitivity
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar with irritability when hungry)
  • Low blood pressure and dizziness upon first standing

Any of these symptoms ring a bell for you?

Most every person we work with writes down fatigue as one of the main complaints other than digestive problems. The remaining symptoms tend to come out later as we discuss their health in more detail.

And anyone dealing with digestive problems most likely suffers from severe chronic inflammation.

I suffered from every single one of these symptoms when I was sick. At the time they didn’t seem related, but once I was treated for low cortisol they got substantially better. As I’ve gotten healthier I realized the important role cortisol plays in a healthy body and why chronic inflammation is the first red flag you need to be aware of.

Chronic Inflammation Is Like a Fire Raging Inside Your Body

Inflammation is a normal immune response in your body. It’s usually our friend. Think of it like the first responder to the scene of the injury. Pain, swelling, redness, and warmth are all signs of inflammation arriving at the site and helping your body with the healing process.

After inflammation gets the job done, the body will release various controls like cortisol to turn off inflammation and go back to business as usual. (1)

But sometimes inflammation doesn’t turn off… and that’s when things start to go wrong.

Inflammation becomes chronic when it stops being an acute response and remains a constant low-level physiological response. Think of it like starting a small camp fire meant to keep you warm that doesn’t get put out and then grows into a forest fire, burning 100,000 acres.

Chronic inflammation is when your body no longer has the ability to turn off the inflammatory response and it starts damaging healthy tissue in your body. It could damage the intestinal lining in your gut and cause digestive problems, it could damage the arteries in your heart and cause heart disease, and it could damage your joints or cause rheumatoid arthritis.  It also leads to just about every chronic disease we know of.

Cortisol Is Your Inflammation Off Switch

Inflammation is just one part of our complex and amazing immune system and cortisol plays a huge role in how well it functions. Studies on the effect of glucocorticoids like cortisol on gene expression shows that they upregulate and downregulate up to 2,000 genes that are involved in regulation of the immune response. (2)

The research on cortisol suggests it’s the main anti-inflammatory hormone in the body:

“There is a bidirectional communication between the immune system and the HPA axis, in which cytokines stimulate the HPA axis and the resulting release of glucocorticoids provides negative feedback control of the immune response, keeping inflammation in check. It is well established that glucocorticoids exert an important modulatory role on the immune system, both suppressing and enhancing a variety of immune functions.” (3)

The mechanisms for naturally controlling healthy levels of inflammation are complex and there are many different processes that play a role. However, cortisol is one of the biggest players in turning off inflammation and when it’s low… inflammation can run wild. (4)

The bottom line: Cortisol puts your inflammatory fire out. But not when it’s low.

Therefore, chronic inflammation is a strong sign you may have low cortisol. Your body doesn’t have enough of the necessary ingredient (cortisol) to put the fire out.

Most of our clients have a history of chronic inflammation and by the time we talk with them we find their cortisol levels are low. We’re talking about clients ranging from Inflammatory Bowel Diseases like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, to Autoimmune conditions like Celiac Disease or even just general gut inflammation.

In our experience, cortisol is vitally important to having a healthy and fully functioning digestive tract, in which controlling inflammation is a requirement.

Unfortunately, That’s Why Prednisone Works

Earlier, I told you low cortisol seems like an epidemic in our private clients dealing with digestive disease. If you have low cortisol, your body is more susceptible to autoimmune and inflammatory reactions. That’s why steroid medications (corticosteroids) like prednisone are prescribed to suppress immune responses in people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Most of our clients have been on one at some point along the way, and typically it helped them a lot. But plenty also paid the price with weight gain, a moon face, early onset osteopenia and some become dependent on low doses to keep symptoms at bay. And that makes sense given what I explained in this post today, because taking Prednisone or hydrocortisone is taking a man-made form of cortisol (but with severe side effects).

So, if Prednisone worked for you… it’s a red flag that you’ve got low cortisol.

That’s why it’s so important to get to the root cause of the low cortisol issue. Because long-term use of man-made forms of cortisol has a laundry list of negative symptoms and conditions associated with it.

So, if you’re someone who’s reading this article going, “Jordan, you’re totally talking about me,” then you need to work with a skilled practitioner that can order proper saliva testing and find the root cause of your low cortisol.

It could be a big step toward taking control of your symptoms and beginning to heal your gut. If anything, it’ll help you get a better handle on chronic inflammation and strengthen your immune system. Who doesn’t need a little of that in their life?

– Jordan

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About the author

Jordan Reasoner Jordan Reasoner is a health engineer and author. He was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007 and almost gave up hope when a gluten-free diet didn’t work. Since then, he transformed his health using the SCD Diet and started SCDLifestyle.com to help others naturally heal stomach problems. You can check out his story here and find him on Google+, Facebook or Twitter.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Marcie October 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm

This is very interesting. I have just recently been to three different practitioners trying to get help. I have low cortisol and low thyroid. I am on low dose HC and Armour. I need help! It is so hard to find good information and people to help. There is so much conflicting information.

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Steven Wright October 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

@Marcie – Yes it’s complicated if you are already on low dose HC please read the link above about how that causes low DHEA and other complications. I’d also pick up the book “Safe Uses of Cortisol”

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amy May 31, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Hi Steve. I just read “safe uses of cortisol” as suggested by my current doctor. He wanted me to become familiair with cortisol and the safe uses for it because we are probably going to begin this therapy because everything I have tried to help/cure my functional dyspepsia has failed. I have tried natural remedies (been doing paleo for 2 months) as well as medications to no avail. I will say though that Elavil did take away the upper abdominal burning while I was on it, but not this very odd tight feeling that I have had in my upper abdomen for the past year (24/7). I can’t find any paleo or scd or autoimmune community that has any advice or success with helping functional dyspepsia. Do you have any experience with this disorder?

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david April 14, 2016 at 5:52 pm

Hi sorry to hear that i am not a doctor by any mean but i got the solution for ur problem because i had it before because i know how u feel. First u need to supplement with Hcl and pepsin before every meal. U can start with 3-4 pills and see if u feel any improvements u can buy that on amazon 250 pills for 20$ or less. Second step is to supply before bed time with magnisum glycinate, melatonin and vitamin c this will allow u to regulate cortisol between morning and night. I also find it very helpful to supply with organic plant protien shake this is because ur body didn’t digest protiens for two long and need more. I just told u the method but i can explain the reason for each supplement u need. It will be also a good idea to check for h pylori and treat yourself first but the acid u will take will neutralize its effect

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Julie February 26, 2016 at 8:33 pm

Steven, low dose HC is incredible. But it’s not easy to remember to take it every few hours and you have to go through a little trial and error. Plus, not that easy to get any doctor to prescribe it. My doctor is very knowledgable, but even he didn’t know what it was.

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Kathy Kendall October 26, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Fascinating!! Thanks for sharing guys!

Wondering if Ashwaganda is enough to boost the cortisol in adrenal fatigued people. are you aware of any studies on this?

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Xavia October 26, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Is there a list of doctors who will work with cortisol replacement somewhere? Thanks.

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Jordan Reasoner October 28, 2013 at 2:03 am

It’s not so much about replacing it… but more about fixing the root cause so your body naturally produces proper levels. Most of our clients are in severe adrenal fatigue and that’s why they are so low. So corrected the adrenal fatigue will naturally bring cortisol levels back up.

We would be happy to work with you, you can book with us here: http://scdlifestyle.com/consulting/

Otherwise, most people trained in Fuctional Medicine are good with adrenal fatigue and you can find someone here: http://www.functionalmedicine.org/practitioner_search.aspx?id=117

J

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suzanne hunter November 26, 2013 at 6:58 am

Hello;

I am a bit confused as to what you are writing about Cortisol? I’m not sure if you are saying to take a low dose Cortisol or find some other source for it. I have been on a diet similar to SCD with few results. I am still on a very strict diet because there is not all that much I can eat without my stomach having issues. Had my gallbladder removed 7 months ago and, as a result have chronic GERD. I am taking many alternative supplements and herbs to curb the problem and they help to some extent, however; not entirely. The bowels and stomach still have issues. I have terrible IBS and pain due to the reflux in my stomach? Any suggestions would be welcome.

Thank you, Suzanne

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Robbie Bone January 4, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Have you tried Ox bile supplements (to help with fat digestion) and Hydrochloric Acid (betaine w/ pepsin) supplements (to help with general digestion, especially of proteins)? Often GERD is due to low stomach acid. Without a gallbladder, your fat digestion will be greatly impaired. Adequate stomach acid is necessary in stimulating the release of Bile and other digestive enzymes to be released into the small intestine. Good luck, hope you start feeling better.

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Martha February 13, 2014 at 9:05 am

Bonnie, I just saw this response you posted in Jan. Do you use Ox bile and Betaine with pepsin? I don’t have a gallbladder it was removed 34 years ago and slowly over time one thing after another started to give me trouble. Weight gain ,digestive, thyroid, adrenal etc. including losing most of my hair. It is all a domino effect. If this is an effective treatment for you, let me know

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bob September 6, 2015 at 12:05 am

First things should be done first. There are literally dozens of simple MUST DOs before resorting to complicated MEDDLING. Start with fundamentals-ENZYMES-at least 50% of all foods should be eaten raw. Chew all food until one can “drink it” (yes 100 times sometimes), be careful of water intake before, during and after meals, pay attention to what foods YOUR body likes, (be wary of all legumes and cereals) and so on and on. Most Functional practioners have written all this time and time again- anyone who doesn’t study this area of advice deserves to be ill. If all this has been in place for 6 months and there is still illness its suggested that additional help may be warranted

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Mariel Heiss September 6, 2015 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for sharing this Bob! Steve and Jordan free that a healthy dietary plan like SCD is the foundation of good health 🙂

Hope you’re feeling awesome today!

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Patsy December 21, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Hi, I was diagnosed in September with low cortisol and have been working with a practitioner with diet and supplements. I was wondering how long it usually takes to get cortisol back to a healthy level. I guess the case got complicated because i came off of hormone replacement therapy and had major sleep issues since.

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Cheri February 16, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Hi, I have had the saliva tests and have low cortisol in the morning then it levels off in mid afternoon and stays a bit higher than it should be at night, a reverse curve. I was encouraged to take an adrenal supplement but then read that with my autoimmune thyroid condition (which is improving now) that I shouldn’t take anything with adrenal cortex because it has adrenaline in it. I cannot find any adrenal support supplement without it! Is there anything I can take to support my adrenal gland? I have been on the Paleo diet for over a year and still struggle with IBS and other autoimmune issues, and although I am slowing improving, most days it is really hard to get out of bed!

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Marisa June 4, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Quantum Nutrition Labs has Adaptogen and Adrenal Complex products that have no cortex in them.

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Jenni February 25, 2014 at 12:49 pm

What would be best to heal first if my adrenal, thyroid(T3), testosterone, and gut (SIBO/IBS) are all occurring at same time. (Tested via saliva and blood tests) I have been seeing a naturopath for 4 years with little to no progress and only a weight gain of over 10lbs in the past 5 months!! He has addressed the gut first but I see all else slipping….
I have spent over $4000.00 in 2 years:( . I also have eaten clean autoimmune Paleo for 4 years and I’m burning out….

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Jen June 7, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Jenni ..I could cry as I am in the same boat as u. Have things improved lately…if so..how?

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Patti March 2, 2014 at 9:00 pm

I have a gastric sleeve, 3 1/2 years, and continue to take Priolosec. I know that taking it long term is not good, but every time I try to stop, the acid reflux comes back so bad I cannot take it. Is there anything I can do?

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April Simkins March 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Everyone Here With Health Issues Should See Their Dr And Then Usually A GI And Endocrinologist To Get To The Root Cause And Treatment. In My Case, I Have A Cyst On my pituitary Gland Causing issues For My Adrenal And Thyroid Glands. Removing The Cyst Will/Should Self correct my Issues. Do Not Try To Self Correct, You Could End Up Critically Ill. A Good Endochronogist Will Order All Of The Necessary Tests. I Am Waiting To Find Out About My Surgery To Remove The cyst as I Write This. I Have Been Off Work Sick For Four Months now When I Finally Physically Collapsed. I Am On Hydrocortisone Temporarily And Now I Feel AMazing But It Is Just A Band Aid For Now To Get Me To My Surgery Date

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Lisa-Maria April 1, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Is there a root cause to Addison’s Disease that can be fixed? Because I’ve been looking for a cure for up to three years now.. :/

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Cindy Fergus May 3, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Wow!! Thank you for explaining this in such a clear manner! I have been trying to make
sense out of my current health issues and this just connects all the missing links.. I have low Cortisol; 2.3 AM Blood test Haven’t been able to see an Endocrine doc because she won’t see me until I’ve been off Prednisone for at least a month. I’ve finished a 6 week Predisone taper which was due to my doctor telling me he has no experience with this and he was just trying to see if that would make me feel better. I now have Hypoglycemia in addition to extreme fatigue, acid reflux, stomach pain (upper left quad), head ache .. etc etc. I’ve had a CT scan upper and lower abdominal which indicated only that I have an enlarged spleen. Next week I am having an Endoscopy, Colonoscopy and finally seeing the Endocrine doc the following week. Just tired of feeling ill and want my life back. This site has really helped me to understand some of what I am dealing with, Thank you 🙂

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Jason July 11, 2014 at 6:58 pm

look up sigmoidoscopy and Rick Simpson oil before doing anything else and adaptogens like ashwagandha maca ginseng ginkgo biloba reishi spores and others

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Rhonda June 19, 2014 at 2:35 am

Rhodiola Rosea, Panax Ginseng or Seberian Ginseng are the things I found as adaptogens. They up natural steroids in the adrenal gland when necessary and lower when necessary. Give it time. Also look into Vitamin C, DHEA, Magnesiem along with the adptogen chosen. JUST my findings from research on the topic. Not medical advice, (disclaimer)

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Andrea August 24, 2014 at 12:27 am

Hi there

I have just been diagnosed with low cortisol through the 24 urine collection test (17) by my GP.

What he can’t understand is my complaint originally was been rapid weight gain yet with Addisons disease the symptom is weight loss. Your article struck a chord. Could my weight gain be due to chronic inflammation instead?

I really don’t want to go on any cortisteroids as that will make me gain more weight which i am terrified of doing.

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Lori Jo Berg August 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Hi Andrea, thank you for reaching out! We do suggest working closely with a practitioner that you trust to help guide your health decisions. As you said, you could be dealing with some chronic inflammation, which can certainly make one feel less than optimal. If you are interested in changing your diet, we suggest checking out one of our 2 programs, which will provide you with an anti inflammatory approach to eating. If you are in need of a practitioner, you can find one here: http://scdlifestyle.com/practitioners/

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Christina December 3, 2014 at 3:51 am

In September I had an emergency appendectomy and in diagnosing this problem I had a CT scan which revealed an adrenal incidentaloma which if functional affects hormones including cortisol. Tests say I have low cortisol and very high potassium. Symptoms include anxiety attacks, heart palpitations, extreme weight gain, emotional sensitivity. I have stopped taking almost all supplements so that any testing can be more precise and am waiting for a referral to an endocrinologist.
I mention this because I have been thinking for years that I had undiagnosed thyroid disease and all the while I had this little nodule on my adrenal gland throwing my hormones into chaos. So self diagnosis isn’t always accurate.

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Milena June 7, 2015 at 1:21 am

My mother lived was diagnosed with M.E back in 1999. She wasn’t able to receive any support from the orthodox route, so went to see a Nutritionist in 2004. Amongst other things, she was found to have absolutely NO CORTISOL at all! The nutritionist advised her to take Adrenal Stress Formula and multivitamins which helped. However, as the years have progressed she developed chronic IBS symptoms which had her calling an ambulance several times. Paramedics and doctors in hospital couldn’t help and just sedated her to help numb the pain. And she was sent home. 5 years ago a new pattern developed whereby she was finding that she became to starchy foods. And gradually she was cutting out a wider variety of foods because they’d set off these chronic IBS attacks. She went to see a gastric specialist and found that she had a SIBO and parasites which he treated and tests later revealed that she was clear of both. But still the chronic sensitivity to foods continued. Now she literally can only drink WATER and only eats MEAT!!!! She literally cannot eat anything else, literally! So any food protocol to help relieve the issue are futile because she can’t eat anything.
I’ve read your information regarding Low Cortisol creating a cascade of the health issues that my mother has manifested. But hers is more severe because she has NO CORTISOL. Is it too late to begin taking it?
None of her doctors have ever tested her for it. And would she need to see an Endocrinologist?
PLEASE HELP!!!!

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Lori Jo Berg June 7, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Hi Milena, sorry to hear about all she has gone through. Adrenal fatigue and cortisol issues are serious and need to be handled by a trusted practitioner who is trained in functional medicine. It sounds like she needs to have some tests run to see exactly where things lie with her adrenals and gut health.

We suggest looking here for a practitioner if you are in need of one: http://scdlifestyle.com/practitioners/

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Alice September 12, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Hi, I want to say I really appreciate your site. I found you when I was researching cortisol (why cortisol is good). I have read so many articles about cortisol, but something just did not make sense…I, in my small understanding, continue to caution my readers to discontinue steroids as soon as the flare-up is over and to turn to diet and supplements that support the immune system (not activate it). When my doctor put me on a gluten free diet about 3 years ago, it was a turning point for me. What I still do not understand, is how, if you have low cortisol, can you still have trouble getting rid of fat around the middle? I know there are more cortisol receptors in this area, but why when you read about this does everyone say you need to reduce cortisol? I am sure that with autoimmune dysfunctions I probably have low cortisol. Thank you for your time and I will be mentioning your site to my readers.

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Mariel Heiss September 14, 2015 at 10:44 am

Hi Alice, thanks so much for reaching out and for your kind words!

Cortisol is just one important factor in maintaining an ideal weight – other hormones, the thyroid system, and the adrenals all have a big impact on weight.

If you’re still struggling with your weight, you may consider looking at your adrenal and thyroid function even more, and maybe with the help of a practitoner.

We have two recommended practitoners who can help, if you’re interested: http://scdlifestyle.com/practitioners/

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Emma March 6, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Hi,
Don’t know if anyone will reply to this but read this article and found it very interesting. Wondered if anyone can give any advice or has experienced anything similar? I was diagnosed with crohns disease 10 years ago when i was 17 and underwent surgery shortly after. THis was after trying various medications and steroids which didn’t work. I have been on mercaptopurine for 9 years and have just come off it as test results showed no sign of active crohns. However as far back as I can remember i have always had severe exhaustion,dizziness,extreme thirst,aching and pains in arms,legs, wrists and neck and general feeling of not really being here if that makes sense.I was told this would go away after I had my op and it never has. Every time I mention it at cliNic they say to have blood test and nothing shows up. I am fed up of not being taken seriously by Dr’s and am sure that there is something else as well as the crohns. Reading this I wonder now if it has anything to do with cortisol levels as I see that it is linked to auto immune diseases. How would this be tested? I feel like I am banging my head against a brick wall with drs as no one wants to listen. It took many years to get diagnosed with the crohns (after my mom repeatedly took me to Dr’s who told me it was a virus or stomach bug every time) and now it is the same problem that no Dr seems to want to listen. All I have been told is try gentle exercise!-This actually makes it worse 🙁 Can anyone help or has anyone else with crohns experienced the same feeling?
Emma

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Mariel Heiss March 7, 2016 at 5:05 pm

Hi Emma – you can have your cortisol levels tested by your doctor or practitioner. You can use a blood or saliva test to have your levels tested.

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