The Stress-Cortisol-Melatonin-Hormonal Relationship
Without hormonal balance, our bodies and brains can suffer. This is because our hormones regulate almost all bodily processes. Though potent, they can be easily triggered by various aspects. Furthermore, when one hormone becomes imbalanced, all the others do too!
In a previous post, I provided some natural tips to address one of the most universal factors that can lead to hormonal chaos, stress. Physical or emotional stressors result in the stress hormone (cortisol) increasing and a downregulation of our other hormones, especially our sex hormones. As the body tries to regain its baseline set point (homeostasis), it puts all its energy into our survival. This means our rest, rejuvenation, and/or reproduction take a back seat.
This cortisol hijack during a stress attack is known as the “the progesterone steal.” It is appropriately named because our body is making cortisol at the expense of this key player in hormonal harmony.
Knowledge of progesterone’s functions provides an excellent example of how one hormone being swayed could result in many bodily symptoms. This is why I took the time to highlight progesterone and spell out exactly how to recognize symptoms of high and low levels. I also reviewed testing, treatment, and naturopathic and functional medicine approaches to better optimize progesterone and hormonal health.
With an understanding of all the havoc that one hormone being suboptimal can cause, I thought I’d bring you to the source that creates a lot of this mischief. This way, you have a better ability to spot when your body takes a hit and have resources to reset it. So, in this post, I turn the spotlight on cortisol.
I discuss what cortisol is and its roles in the body. I also briefly describe how cortisol interacts with another one of our powerful hormones, melatonin. The relationship between these two chemical messengers helps to balance our wakefulness with our rest.
Here’s the overview of what is covered in this article and video: *
- The balance between stress and slumber
- What cortisol is
- It’s physiological effects
- How cortisol works in the body
- How cortisol output is shut down
- The relationship between cortisol and melatonin
- Normal cortisol levels
- How to test for cortisol
- How to balance cortisol naturally with naturopathic and functional medicine (using lifestyle, supplements, essential oils, and herbs)
*This post is based on one of my publication’s on Rupa Health. I have broken it down into two parts and added some additional information from my clinical experience. The full version also contains some supplementary scientific material that isn’t covered in my summaries. So, you’ll likely want to view them both if you wish to master the cortisol-melatonin relationship.
From Stress to Deep Slumber
According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, over 80% of our nation is experiencing high stress. This is mostly due to current world events and our economy.
With all the trepidation and uncertainty of our times, it’s no wonder that adults in America are unable to rest. In fact, about one-third are getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep.
As you likely deducted, one of hormones responsible for keeping us in such high alert and up so late is cortisol. However, you can’t discuss what’s keeping us anxious without mentioning what calms us down. It is melatonin hormone that helps counter cortisol’s stimulation and assists us into the deep slumber we need to recover.
These two players have system-wide effects beyond the sleep-wake cycle and their interplays are amazing. So, let’s dive into all the details on cortisol and its link to melatonin. In an upcoming article, I’ll give you more details on melatonin.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a type of steroid hormone made from cholesterol. It is fittingly referred to as the “stress hormone,” because it is produced in the adrenal glands in response to a physical or psychological stressor.
Cortisol can affect nearly every organ and has receptors on most body tissues. As a result, it impacts your nervous, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine (reproductive), musculoskeletal, and integumentary (skin) systems.
This is why, in the long-term, stress can cause or contribute to any health issue. After all, if you are literally, or figurately, in harm’s way, it’s your body’s priority to keep you safe and alive!
What Does Cortisol Do?
As mentioned, cortisol being cranked out results in dialing down our “rest, digest, and reproduce” functions and upregulating our “fight, flee, or freeze” responses. This means cortisol influences:
- Breathing rate (increases)
- Gut and reproductive functions (slows them down)
- Muscle tone
- Blood glucose (increases)
- Fat breakdown (catabolic)
- Heart rate (increases)
- Blood pressure (increases)
- Inflammation, cooling it down (to focus on our survival and enable our bodies to move without pain)
How Does Cortisol Work?
Cortisol is made from cholesterol, which is produced mostly in the liver but can also be ingested from food. It then follows several biochemical pathways in the adrenal glands to convert it from this lipid precursor into its final structure.
Cortisol levels are regulated in a feedback loop via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis:
- First, stress activates the hypothalamus gland to release corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). **
- CRH then stimulates the pituitary to release Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), signaling the second loop.
- Next, ACTH increases the activity of an enzyme to stimulate cortisol synthesis and to initiate cortisol’s release from the adrenal glands.
** CRH is also influenced by levels of norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. These are additional players within the chemical cascade of physiological stress.
How Does Our Body Tame Cortisol Release?
Most of the cortisol floating in our blood is bonded to proteins, either corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) or albumin. This keeps this powerful hormone inactivated until it reaches its tissue targets.
When the body senses there is enough cortisol, ACTH and CRH stimulation ceases. From here, an enzyme converts cortisol to its inactive form, cortisone, in the kidney and pancreas.
What is The Relationship Between Melatonin and Cortisol?
Our body needs cortisol to keep us alert. This is why, in general, cortisol levels in the blood are highest in the early morning (around 8 a.m.) and decrease slightly in the evening and during the early sleep phase.
Melatonin, on the other end, is released after sunset and peaks between 2-4 a.m., decreasing into the day. Cortisol and melatonin are on opposing ends of our day-wake cycle, our circadian rhythm.
They are the “yin and yang” hormones, balancing each other. If one is off, like all hormones, so is the other.
What Are Normal Cortisol Levels?
Cleveland Clinic reports that the average blood ranges for cortisol relate to time of day:
- 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.: 10 to 20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
- Around 4 p.m.: 3 to 10 mcg/dL.
Salivary lab cortisol markers can also vary depending on the clock. One study reported the reference interval for morning and late-night salivary cortisol was 2.09 – 22.63 nmol/L and <12.00 nmol/L, respectively.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Cortisol
The tests for cortisol can be viewed in more detail on my Rupa publication. They include:
- A melatonin profile
- A Rhythm + CAR (Cortisol Awakening Response) Test
- The CAR Profile
How to Balance Cortisol Naturally
A comprehensive approach to cortisol imbalances is important and interventions are based on if the cortisol is too high or low. Generally, modulating stress can provide benefits in either case.
Below are some methods to balance cortisol, which I shared on Rupa Health
Optimizing sleep, movement, having fun, nurturing positive relationships, and limiting stress with mind-body practices are important means to modulate cortisol.
Food and Diet
A nourishing diet can help the body deal with the excess demands of stress. Some key nutrients include:
- B vitamins
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Probiotic-rich and/or fermented foods (via the gut-brain axis)
Previously, I discussed nine ways aromatherapy can modulate stress. This makes essential oils effective for many of the resulting physical and emotional symptoms. They have the ability to:
- reduce cortisol (Clary sage oil, bergamot oil, and lavender oil have all been shown in small clinical trials to lower cortisol levels.)
- modulate brain signals (neurotransmitters)
- shift our brainwaves
- calm our emotions
- enhance our cognition
- support cellular physiology
- work directly on our emotional brain, causing an immediate shift in our perception
- evoke memories and transform our mood through their aroma
- interact with odor receptors throughout our whole body, influencing our biochemical pathways and physical state
Herbs that are calming (nervines) and ones that help the body adapt to stress (adaptogens) can help with balancing cortisol. These include:
- Nervines: Valerian officinalis (valerian), Matricaria recutita (German chamomile), Humulus lupulus (hops), and St. John’s Wort
- Adaptogens: Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha), Rhodiola Rosea (Rhodiola), and Ocimum sanctum (Holy basil)
Two amino acids that help to calm the body, brain, and modulate cortisol include:
- L-theanine, an amino acid extracted from green tea
- Phosphatidylserine (PS), another amino acid derivative
Summary on Balancing Cortisol with Naturopathic and Functional Medicine
Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone,” but it does so much more. It is essential for our survival and helps balance our sleep and wake cycle, along with melatonin. It has systematic effects and is vital for many physiological processes.
Naturopathic and functional medicine interventions including (1) regulating lifestyle practices and decreasing stress, (2) enhancing nutrition, and (3) using aromatherapy, herbs, and supplements, can all help to balance cortisol.
As a result, your mind and many of your body systems will benefit.
Which of these tools will you implement into your wellness protocol?
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal, Mood, and Digestive Support
- Free resources and more education on essential oils and mind-body wellness are available to you here.
- An Integrative Mental Health and Stress Resource Guide.
- Tools for coping with isolation and separation.
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See all the additional references in the original article on Rupa Health here.
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.