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How to Increase Cortisol in the Morning

Do you find yourself hitting the snooze button far too often? Are you feeling groggy, tired, and fatigued? Do you find it almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning?

Have difficulty waking up in the morning? This might all be a sign that you're having an adrenal issue.

What is cortisol?:

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone that is produced and secreted by your adrenal glands. Cortisol is also known as your stress hormone.

Your cortisol plays a large role in regulating your blood sugar, blood pressure, circadian rhythm, energy, metabolism and inflammation. In normal adrenal function, cortisol should be highest in the morning and should reduce as the day goes on.

Cortisol is usually tested first thing in the morning (before 9 am), however, a more salivary test may be ordered that assesses your cortisol throughout the day.

What are your adrenal glands?:

Your adrenals glands are a pair of 2 glands, each located right above each kidney. Your adrenal glands produce several hormones that are responsible for many of your essential bodily functions.

Some of these functions include helping regulate your immune system, stress hormones, metabolism and blood pressure. The adrenal glands are made up of two parts: the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. The cortex and medulla are each responsible for producing their own hormones.

There are specific conditions associated with too little or too much production of adrenal hormones.

Your adrenal cortex makes up the majority of your adrenal gland and is the outermost part of your adrenals. Your adrenal cortex is made up of 3 zones that each produce different hormones; these zones include the zona glomerulosa, zona fasciculata and zona reticularis.

The zona glomerulosa secretes aldosterone, the zona fasciculata secretes cortisol and the zona reticularis secretes both androgens (DHEA and androstenedione, both made from cholesterol)  and a small number of glucocorticoids. Aldosterone is a steroid, released by the zona glomerulosa, that is responsible for regulating the salt and water in your body, having an effect on your blood pressure.

DHEA is a hormone that is a precursor to your other hormones, like testosterone and estrogen. 

The adrenal medulla, the innermost part of the adrenal gland, secretes primarily epinephrine and norepinephrine. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are your stress hormones and neurotransmitters  that are often released when you are in fight or flight.

These chemicals cause your blood pressure and heart rate to increase and your blood sugar to go up. Epinephrine has a greater effect on your heart, and norepinephrine affects your blood vessels, causing them to constrict which is why your blood pressure goes up. 

What are ideal cortisol levels?:

Typically, cortisol is tested first thing in the morning. The reason being is that your cortisol should be highest in the morning and drop as the day goes on.

If your cortisol is below that or at the bottom range of normal, it indicates you have a low cortisol awakening response. There can be many causes of this, some of which include Addison's Disease, physiological burnout, chronic fatigue, poor sleep, or chronic pain.

Depending on what is causing your low morning cortisol levels, therapy will likely differ, however, there are natural tools you can use to help raise your morning cortisol levels to help you start your day more energized!

Ways to increase cortisol levels:

You want to first make sure you don't have Addison's Disease. Addison's Disease, commonly known as primary adrenal insufficiency, is an adrenal gland disorder in which your body does not produce a sufficient amount of cortisol or aldosterone.

Addison's Disease is of autoimmune etiology, which occurs when your body's immune system attacks the adrenal cortex. While the cause of typically autoimmune, other causes exist including cancer, assault to the adrenal glands, or infection.

Cortisol and autoimmune diesease

If your cortisol is low, your doctor will want to look at your ACTH to assess whether you have primary or secondary adrenal insufficiency.

If you do not have Addison's Disease but have lower levels of morning cortisol levels, there are natural ways to help increase morning cortisol. Some of which may include:

  1. Early morning sunlight exposure- Sunlight sends your pituitary gland a wake-up signal. By sending this signal to your pituitary gland, your pituitary gland releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol and serotonin are released by the pituitary gland and melatonin is reduced, giving you a burst of energy in the morning.  
  2. Eat more carbohydrates! While it seems that reducing carbohydrates can help support weight loss, this may not be true for everyone. Studies have shown that eating more carbohydrates, specifically closer to dinner or bedtime helped improve sleep quality and morning cortisol levels. The type of carbohydrates does matter though- you should focus on complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, nuts, and beans. Some examples include:
  • Kidney beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils, soybeans
  • Buckwheat, quinoa, barley, oats, brown rice
  • Potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus
  • Bananas, berries
  1. Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake. Drinking caffeine can interfere with your normal morning production of cortisol. Drinking caffeine (such as coffee) or alcohol can cause a crash in your energy, putting more strain on your adrenal glands.
  2. Blood sugar regulation! Did you know that your cortisol levels and blood sugar are related? By keeping your blood sugar regulated throughout the day, you assure that your adrenal glands aren't being taxed. Fasting or skipping meals may add extra stress to your adrenal glands, negatively affecting your cortisol levels. You can regulate your blood sugar by making sure your meals consist of a healthy source of protein, healthy fat, and fiber.
  3. Get moving! Strenuous exercise can negatively impact your adrenal glands, especially if they are already producing an insufficient amount of cortisol. However, daily movement including walking, yoga, pilates, and stretching can help normalize your cortisol levels.
  4. Maintain a regular sleep schedule. By going to sleep at the same time each night and waking up at the same time in the morning, you are helping regulate your body's circadian rhythm. This may require some sleep hygiene practices- including dimming your lights two hours before bedtime, avoiding electronics before bed, and sleeping in a cool environment.
  5. Stress management. If you're finding yourself unable to manage daily stressors, you may want to find a way to reduce your day-to-day stress. Some of these tools may include meditation, breathing exercises, daily journaling, or light movement.
  6. Herbal support. There are many natural herbs that have been shown to support adrenals and healthy cortisol levels. Speak to your Doctor about what herbs might be best for you!
Tips to Balance Your Cortisol levels with a healthy diet

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Dr. Linda Khoshaba is the Leading Integrative Health and Hormone Doctor in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has extensive experience working in the field as a Hormone Specialist and Natural Endocrinologist.

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