Cortisol and Adrenal Fatigue

Cortisol is one of those “good/bad” hormones. Too much in the evening and you won’t fall asleep or, you wake up in the middle of the night. Too little in the morning and your energy level is worthless and you can’t get out of bed. Too little during a workout and your performance drops.

What exactly is cortisol?

It is a hormone produced by the Adrenal glands (a pair of small pyramid shaped hormone producing glands which live on top of your kidneys) in response to stress. When a stressful event occurs the brain releases a chemical called ACTH into the blood which then enters the adrenal glands and tells the glands to release cortisol. Now in the “caveman” days our body used this as our “fight or flight” mechanism to handle extremely stressful events, like being chased by a sabre toothed tiger. The release of cortisol and adrenalin at the time we were being chased by the tiger gave us a better chance to get away and survive. However, nowadays we have far less sabre toothed tigers chasing us and many more cell phones ringing, emails to send and children to take from one place to another.

The problem with our lifestyle now is that all these small stressors consistently task the adrenal glands, they really do not know the difference between a tiger chasing you and being late to work. In the past we would only use these hormones in times of extreme stress, now it is happening on a daily basis. We now have 500 times more stress than our ancestors, which means our adrenal glands are unable to keep up with all this stress we have, and they become fatigued.

Simply, we get burned out.

The stresses that cause Adrenal Fatigue are many, as outlined below:

Additional to this are poor posture and spinal vertebral misalignments (particularly vertebrae C7-T10). Chiropractors call these ‘Vertebral Subluxations’, and adjust the spine where appropriate to correct these misalignments in your body.

So apart from knowing that you struggle to get up in the morning and then find it hard to get to sleep at night, how can you tell if you are suffering from Cortisol imbalance or Adrenal Fatigue?

The Dilated Pupil Test:

Here is a simple test you can do at home to determine if you have Adrenal Fatigue. To do the test you can do it alone with a mirror. It may not be present if you only suffer mildly from hypoadrenia (under active adrenal glands).

Sit in a darkened room for a few minutes to adapt your eyes to the dark, then shine the light from a not-to-strong penlight from about 6 inches away onto the centre of one eye, keeping it there for at least 30 seconds.

If you are healthy, you should see your pupil contract immediately as the light hits your eye. The pupil normally remains contracted in the increased light. But if you have some adrenal insufficiency, the pupil will not be able to hold its contraction and will dilate despite the light shining on it.

Retest periodically, as you recover from hypoadrenia the iris will hold its contraction for longer, and your pupil will remain smaller for longer periods. This diminished ability of the iris to remain contracted is present in moderate to severe adrenally fatigued people. 

So what are some of the steps necessary to keep your cortisol at a healthy level and help correct Adrenal Fatigue?

It was noted as early as the 1900’s that unless a person changed their lifestyle to reduce the source/s of adrenal strain and developed new lifestyles to allow their adrenal glands to recover, complete healing was seldom seen.

Key lifestyle changes to make:

  • Relaxation is very important for recovery, slowing down your breathing, breathing deeply and abdominal breathing, not shallow breaths, progressive relaxation like meditation or Tai Chi are both excellent.
  • Holidays are important as a means of relaxing and reducing the stressful triggers in life.
  • Minimise technology, especially in the evening. Turning off the TV and other electronics a half hour before bed and using that time to read or plan your next day has been proven to lower cortisol.
  • Foods – The importance of correct nutrition in adrenal fatigue cannot be over emphasised. It is very important that you eat breakfast, and that you definitely eat before 10am (between 6 – 8am your cortisol levels tend to rise rapidly). Have an early (rather than later in the afternoon) lunch, and importantly, have a small snack early afternoon, a high quality protein snack will suffice. Make sure you have ample protein and fats in your diet and limit your carbohydrate intake in order to have more consistent energy levels and rest your adrenals. Totally avoid (for 3 months completely) sweet foods and stimulants such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. 
  • Supplements – there are some effective ways for boosting your cortisol in the morning so you can wake up naturally without feeling tired, groggy and in need of multiple cups of coffee. These include taking Liquorice (no, not Allsorts, the real stuff made from the Liquorice root – this corrects improper Cortisol rhythm), Ashwaganda (this supports the ‘brain to adrenal gland’ chemical reaction), and eating a Meat and Nuts breakfast (sparks energy and increases dopamine). In the evening, when you want your Cortisol levels to be lower, take some Vitamin C and/or Magnesium (the chelated form is best).
  • Exercise. Cortisol is a necessary hormone when it comes to exercise. You need it elevated during a workout to help “get you going” and to help increase energy. However, as soon as that workout is over, you need to do everything possible to get it lowered. You need to lower cortisol to start the recovery process after your workout and to help your body maintain a healthy level throughout the rest of the day.
  • Chiropractic adjustments. Adjustments help improve nervous system function throughout the body and help ensure good nerve supply to the adrenal glands.  


Adapted from: