Top 5 Cortisol Myths

Top Cortisol Myths

Note from Katie: My personal doctor, Dr. Alan Christianson, is one one of the leading experts on stress and adrenal health. I asked him to explain how the cortisol myths that affects stress and sleep, as well as in ways you wouldn’t expect. Enter Dr. Alan…

Popular supplements promise to reduce your cortisol and help you lose weight. In everyday conversation people talk about stress skyrocketing their cortisol. Many understand that cortisol has some ties to belly fat. What is cortisol and how does it related to your health?

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that manages your body’s daily rhythm. Think of it as your build in coffee pot. You wake up in the morning because your adrenals just made a fresh batch of it. You fall asleep at night because they shut it off.

Besides just being awake or asleep, you’d be amazed at how much of your body is run on a 24 hour schedule. Regulation of fat, digestion, immunity, blood sugar regulation, hunger, mental focus, and upkeep on your skin, hair, and nails all are controlled by the rhythm of cortisol.

Before modern life, we had lots of cues that kept our cortisol rhythms in sync. The most powerful were the bright bluish light of dawn and the orange light of sunset. Feeling cold at night was another cue as was having a larger meal in the evening. Today we have many fewer cues to correct our cortisol rhythm and many new factors that throw it off. These include:

  • Sugars, especially fructose
  • Emotional stressors
  • Pollutants including lead and plastic compounds
  • Medications
  • Insomnia
  • Shift work
  • Noise pollution

Cortisol Myths That Affect Your Health

Now that you understand what cortisol is, lets bust some of the top cortisol misconceptions so you can keep your energy high, your sleep good, and your metabolism strong.

Myth #5: Cortisol is Not Your Highest Health Priority

A study of British civil servants showed that bad cortisol rhythms killed more people than smoking, heart disease, diabetes, or obesity.

Never assume that your sleep or stress levels are minor factors for your health.

Myth #4: You Can’t Fix Cortisol Because Stress is Unavoidable

The stress of life may be unavoidable, but steps as simple as timing your food strategically can keep you resilient and on track. In a study of 42 women with weight loss resistance, diet alone was shown to correct cortisol rhythm by over 50% in 30 days. The diet in the study used carb cycling and avoided fructose and indigestible proteins like gluten and soy.

Myth #3: High Cortisol Causes Weight Gain

This one is half right and half wrong. High cortisol can cause weight gain but so can low cortisol or cortisol made at the wrong times. Simple steps like getting ½ hour of sunlight within an hour of waking can help cortisol if it is too high or too low.

If this is not possible for you during certain seasons, a light-box that generates 10,000 lux of light can work as a good substitute.

Myth #2: Exercise Lowers Cortisol

Oddly enough, exercise is a type of stress. It serves us best when it is challenging but not overwhelming. The biggest factors determining if it is good or bad include: how stable your adrenals are now; and how much exercise you are already used to. The most adrenal-friendly types of exercise are light exercises like stretching and pilates. The least adrenal-friendly activities include triathlon training or back to back days of high intensity training interval training.

Myth #1: Carbs are Bad for Cortisol

Your body uses cortisol to rescue you from low blood sugar. This makes carbs a tool you can use to help regulate your cortisol. Start your day with 25-35 grams of protein and finish it with 20-50 grams of high-quality carbs. Great options include paleo-friendly sources like sweet potatoes, turnips, squash, beets, and rutabagas. Having them later in the day helps not only cortisol but a whole host of weight regulating hormones like leptin, ghrelin, and adiponectin.

Your body is made to be healthy and thriving. If your health is not where you want, please know it can improve. Never give up on yourself!

-Alan Christianson, NMD
Author of The Adrenal Reset Diet

1. Kumari M, Shipley M, Stafford M, Kivimaki M. Association of diurnal patterns in salivary cortisol with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: findings from the Whitehall II study. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 May;96(5):1478-85. doi: 10.1210/jc.2010-2137. Epub 2011 Feb 23.
2. Christianson. The Adrenal Reset Diet. Chapter 4. Random House. 2014.
3. Hasegawa Y. Arita M. Circadian clocks optimally adapt to sunlight for reliable synchronization. J R Soc Interface. Mar 6, 2014; 11(92): 20131018.
doi:  10.1098/rsif.2013.1018
4. Tzanis G, Dimopoulos S, Agapitou V, Nanas S. Exercise intolerance in chronic heart failure: the role of cortisol and the catabolic state. Curr Heart Fail Rep. 2014 Mar;11(1):70-9. doi: 10.1007/s11897-013-0177-1.
5. Sofer S, Eliraz A, et al. Changes in daily leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin profiles following a diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner in obese subjects. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases (2013) 23, 744e750.

About the author: Dr. Alan Christianson is a Naturopathic Physician based in Phoenix, Arizona who helps people overcome adrenal and thyroid disorders and achieve lasting fat loss and vibrant energy. He is a Wellness Media Featured Contributor and the author of three books:-The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease
Healing Hashimoto’s – A Savvy Patient’s Guide
-The Adrenal Reset Diet (available in December)Read more from Dr. Christianson on his Integrative Health Blog.

Have you ever struggled with cortisol issues such as hormone imbalance or trouble sleeping?

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Reader Comments

  1. How do you make or find a light-box that generates 10,000 lux of light?

  2. Thanks Katie for posting this! My 2 year old has been diagnosed with cortisol deficiency. I would like to know more about how to treat it naturally. Do you have any suggestions on websites or books that could help me with this?

    • His book is coming out soon. I know some factors are things like getting bright outdoor light first thing in the morning, avoiding blue light at night. Eating protein in the morning and carbs at night, etc. There are also some herbs but you’d need a specific recommendation from a doc on that.

      • I’ve been diagnosed with adrenal glad shutdown/ Addison disease. I have been taking cortef & flornitef to get my cortisol levels back to normal. I first gained a lot of weight back & then I lost it. Now I’m having more weight gain & not taking the meds as often. No matter what I do I just can’t get the weight off of me. I’m 4’11 & weigh 170. At my heaviest weight I was 187 & lost almost 100 lbs. Then I was diagnosed with he adrenal deficiency. I’m currently contemplating getting the lap band to get rid of this weight again. I don’t eat much & have tried many natural diets/ plans. I live near the beach so I get sunshine. Is there anything out there to help me??

        • I have adrenal fatigue. I’m low, low, low and low. I also am hypothyroid and I had been taking a med to stop estrogen production-examstane. I have gained about 40 lbs. over the last 4 years and couldn’t get rid of it. I started working with a Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist and went on the Wheat Belly diet. I lost 7 lbs which for me was a miracle! Since then I have been loosing about a pound a month. I had IGG testing done and eliminated those things I was sensitive too and dairy and lost 5 more lbs over the next week. And again I’ve been loosing about a lb. a month. I have changed my thyroid medicine not naturally dessicated thyroid and am feeling better. I have also been taking adrenal cortex for my adrenals-I am not Addisons though.
          It is slow and I am constantly finding new things and trying them all our! I am seeing a chiropractor to realign my back and hips. We are having our mercury tooth fillings removed because of the possibility of mercury poisoning. I also did genetic testing and found out I am MTHFR positive and am taking supplements for that. It’s a lot!
          And I am working on healing my gut because I think that is really where it all started-leaky gut. So I take probiotics and digestive enzymes and I don’t eat any grains, sugars or dairy. I feel much better but I have a long way to go. I have lost 19 lbs in 10 months. I finally am pulling out my smaller clothes.

          • Hi Terri,

            I, too, was diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (Stage 3) back in October of 2012, after I became so incapacitated by my health problems and fatigue that I had to reduce my job to part-time hours. Looking back I think that change and the opportunity for more rest was the only thing that prevented me from ending up in hospital!

            I completely know what you mean about trying every thing out there to see if it works! I have tried so many supplements and dietary and lifestyle changes to try to aid my recovery and it can be heartbreaking at times because you’ll read about something having a positive affect for someone and pin all your hopes on it, but then it doesn’t work for you. I guess that’s the joy of us all being so different due to our genes and environment!

            For the first two years recovery was very slow, I cut out added sugars and started increasing my protein intake, especially in the morning. I tried to do some walking or swimming 1-2 times a week (the first time I came back from swimming I couldn’t even walk in a straight line and fell into bed for 3 hours solid sleep!!). I started being kinder to myself and that was a big change because I am very self-critical and put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. I gained 2 stone (28 pounds) during my illness and it was good self-development to learn to be kind to myself when looking at my wobbly body in the mirror! I took a prescribed course of supplements for 18 months but they were very expensive, I eventually switched to a high strength multivitamin, extra magnesium, B-complex and vitamin C, and liquorice extract. I’ve considered powdered adrenal gland supplements but never got round to trying.

            Since Christmas last year (just over 2 years after diagnosis) I have finally begun to feel as though I am returning to the “real” me. I made no further changes to my diet/lifestyle yet it is as though my body suddenly “woke up” and realised what it was supposed to be doing. I’ve had more energy, less aches and pains and have lost 15 pounds since December. It takes a loooooong time to recover from severe forms of adrenal fatigue but the key is to persevere. If you think how long it probably took us to wear out our adrenal glands, it’s logical that it will take just as long to heal!

            I found the book Are You Tired and Wired by Marcelle Pick very helpful. I got a version that was geared towards UK residents (in terms of ingredients, measurements etc) but I am sure she has other versions too.

            The very best of luck in your recovery!

  3. Hi! Thanks for researching and posting so much info about health…it is kind of crazy that the current thought is so contrary… They must have had research that led them to think they do…hopefully! :/ And now the research is saying something different I guess? I have not had time to read the research papers, but as I posted in the Jerk Chicken recipe section that my family is going grain and legume free because husband is carb sensitive, I am intolerant to peanuts and wheat (prob all grain and legumes too) and my son is allergic to peanuts, soy, rice, nuts… and we are feeling great. SO for whatever reason, our bodies don’t like them. It is helpful to know the reasons why they are bad for me to solidify the reason to not eat them, but I haven’t seen sources of research on some of your articles, so thank you for adding them in here. Are the books in your resource section the only resources you’ve used for your articles? Just wondering so I know where the ideas are coming from. Thanks!! 🙂 Emily P.S. I have 2 boys and have no idea how you can work on this and get a recipe book out with 5 kids in 5 years!! Thanks for sharing the good info you are learning in the midst of the busyness!

    • After I have read more of your articles, I have seen you mention where you are getting info and seen many sources at the bottom of your articles… 🙂

  4. WHAT?!! SO then WHY am I exercising???? Just kidding, but that’s crazy! I thought I was doing a good thing for my stress levels.

  5. How timely! After going around in circles I finally found a doctor who diagnosed me with hashimotos and did an Adrenal Stress Panel last week. I have extremely high night. morning and noon cortisol levels. Thanks so much for this article. Cannot wait for the Adrenal Rest diet to be released.

  6. Cortisol is becoming hot topic- lots more people are aware of the impact of stress on their bodies, it’s just creating the lifestyle that reduce stress is tricky:) I am saving up for alight box – Scotland is not exactly sunny!

  7. I’d love to read this book. Would you please most a little FYI on FB when it’s released? Thanks

  8. Check with a professional before using a light box, it can cause mania is a sub-group of the population.

  9. Now I am confused. Read another article online that said to end the day with protein! Now I read to end with carbs…..

  10. As a Nutritional Therapist, this is one area that I spend A LOT of time with on clients. Simply educating what stress does to our bodies and what a big role adrenals play in our overall health provides my clients a sense of relief that it is not all in their heads.

    I require my clients to have an Adrenal Stress Index test done and it is very enlightening for them to physically see their cortisol levels graphed out and it empowers them to be committed to make a change.

    I love the exercise myth. I am an avid exerciser myself, but over the last few years have experienced stressful situations in my personal life. I continued to Crossfit and push myself, until my body gave out. I performed my own ASI text, and low and behold, I was a mess. The classic cobbler’s kids have no shoes syndrome.

    Thank you for a great article and good luck on your healing journey. BTW, loved your blogging article as well. You rock!!

  11. Thanks for this article! I would love more articles related to adrenal health and hormones. I have been struggling with severe insomnia and adrenal exhaustion for awhile and have scoured the internet and books trying to figure out how to sleep! Im looking forward to this book!

  12. I haven’t heard about fructose being a problem for the adrenals. Is this an issue in processed fruit sugars, or in a simple apple?

    Thank you, Katie. I love your blog, and am glad to now be following Dr. Christianson!

    • Hopefully he can weigh in, but from my understanding, fructose in any form (especially regularly or in large amounts) is not good for the adrenals or the liver

  13. I have Addison’s Disease, which basically means my adrenals don’t work, I was diagnosed six years ago and have been on prednisone and fludrocortisone since then…anyway I have asked my doctors about natural ways to try and minimize my reliance on these and they have always told me there was nothing natural to do so. So glad I read your blog today and saw this, can’t wait to read the book!

  14. Thank you for this article! Would you (or someone else) mind sharing a small list of carb foods that may be ideal to eat at night?
    Thank you!

    • I would like this too!

  15. What is the reference for the study you cited under the #4 myth; the study with weight loss resistance women? I’m curious to read it.

  16. I’ve been looking into getting a light box to help with my sleep and adrenal fatigue, but I keep reading warnings regarding the ozone they put out. Could you speak to that a little? It’s the one thing keeping me from taking the plunge.

  17. I Too have a problem sleeping at Night .and wondering if it could be due to the Adrenal gland. . I find when I eat anything with sugar, I have a hard time sleeping. Could sugar of any kind interfere with the Adrenl gland?

    • Yes because sugar stimulates the adrenal glands. Lay off the fruits and eat more starch. Get sunlight in your eyes in the morning and eat plenty of fat and protein. Use adaptogenic herbs in the morning like Ashwahgandha, Gynostemma, and Ginkgo Biloba, Gotu Kola. Do a caffeine detox. Stick with this consistently and you will see changes.