Updated: Oct 15
In today’s world, burnout is an all-too-familiar feeling for athletes and non-athletes alike. You might not consider yourself Type-A, but modern stressors and the complexity of leading a stable life can easily have you acting like it.
Fortunately, we have hormones to deal with just such stressors. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is our first line of defense against such things. It gets a bad rap, but this is an absolutely essential piece of our biology.
In small doses, cortisol is great for our health. Unfortunately, this normally acute hormone has become a chronic one, and bad things happen when it’s constantly in our system. We can go for months and even years without burning out completely, but a constant state of cortisol secretion blunts other hormones, and when we run out of cortisol, we’re left with none of the benefits and all of the pitfalls.
By first understanding Cortisol, we can begin to understand how our body responds to stress. From there, we can modify our routines, shift our focus, and use a host of techniques to support a healthy cortisol rhythm. The result? Happiness, health, and resilience in the face of a stressful modern world.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is most commonly referred to as “the stress hormone” and it plays a critical role in the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing. In fact, it serves many important functions, such as blunting the pain response, lowering inflammation, and increasing your sense of sight and sound so you can better identify sources of danger.
Basically, when hunting a buffalo or fleeing a lion, cortisol is your best friend. The problem is, we don’t really have lion encounters anymore. Instead, our biology responds to work deadlines, traffic, and one too many gym sessions all the same. So what? If cortisol has all these benefits, what’s so bad about producing it all day.
For one thing, cortisol is a bit of a bully hormone. It blunts other hormones from being released, which is why it is crucial to have low cortisol at night. Sleep is prime time for anabolic hormone production, especially Human Growth Hormone. If your cortisol is high at night, it will block other hormones like testosterone, HGH, estrogen, or pregnenolone from doing their work.
The second half of the puzzle is that norepinephrine, AKA adrenaline, is released simultaneously with cortisol. Cortisol helps negate the negative effects of adrenaline, but cortisol is expensive to make and you can run out. When cortisol is depleted, you end up releasing only adrenaline. The result? Feelings of anxiety, heart palpitations, and other issues with none of the benefits.
Chronic cortisol secretion becomes a one-two knockout punch of bottoming out your other hormones and then leaving you anxious and wired when cortisol itself eventually burns out too.
Varying levels of cortisol depletion have different names. At one end, overproduction is Cushing’s disease, and at the other is Addison’s disease (zero production.)
However, cortisol dysfunction really sits on a spectrum. Most functional medicine practitioners refer to sub-optimal cortisol function as adrenal fatigue. Most of us are living with some level of adrenal fatigue. At the mild level, you can probably recover from workouts, but you have a stressful life and don’t support your cortisol with recovery habits or supplements. You’re fine right now but you may not be in a few years.
Others have dealt with full-on adrenal burnout. One workout too many, or big stress like a family emergency sent us over the deep end. Since then we’ve dealt with years of deeply uncomfortable symptoms ranging anywhere from anxiety to full-blown panic attacks, not to mention fatigue and brain fog. Late-stage cortisol dysfunction is kind-of like diabetes but with stress instead of sugar. It can take years for your body to begin producing cortisol again, and even then only with the support and an optimal environment.
The good news is that supporting your cortisol is easy. You can lead a very active and busy life without burnout. Making a schedule, expressing gratitude, sleeping well, recovering from your workouts, and a whole host of other tools can help you optimize your cortisol. If you are at some level of burnout, tactics involving your diet, certain herbs, and work with a functional medicine practitioner can all be valuable assets.