My Cortisol levels are sky high

Hi folks. I haven’t posted in a while, as I’ve been of focusing on what I need to do in order to get well. However, there has been a very significant development in my health: I visited a Naturopath in December 2012 who got me to do the salivary hormone test recommended in the Adrenal Fatigue book. My results came back mid-January this year, very elevated. My nighttime reading in particular is way too high: 27nmol/L, when it should be under 5.

I was elated to get these results; it’s the first medical test I’ve had in 5 years that showed any abnormality at all. So I’m not crazy after all. I also don’t have adrenal fatigue; what I have is constant stress on my body due to excessive cortisol. It’s a bit chicken-and-egg, and not entirely clear what is causing it, but apparently if the nighttime reading doesn’t drop low enough, my body doesn’t enter sufficiently restful sleep to repair itself. Next day I wake up with elevated cortisol again, and the whole thing just repeats. No wonder I feel exhausted all the time. This is pretty consistent with what Gupta says, but now that I have lab test results to prove it, I’m more convinced than ever.

So the most important thing now is to get my nighttime cortisol levels down below 5nmol/L so my body can sleep properly. My nervous system should then start repairing. To help do this, I’ve changed my routine so I:

  • Get up at 6am every day.
  • Eat and exercise before 7am (within an hour of getting up).
  • Don’t exercise after mid-day.
  • Start winding down at 9:30pm
  • Be in bed by 10pm every night

Apparently exercise raises your cortisol levels temporarily, but they peak half an hour or so after you stop, and then fall below where they would have been if you hadn’t exercised. I had been exercising in the afternoon when I felt terrible, and even worse sometimes went dancing at night. So I was exercising at the wrong time of day.

Getting to sleep by 10pm is really important. It’s not just how long you sleep; what hours you are asleep also makes a difference. I had read this before, but wasn’t doing it religiously. I don’t go out in the evenings now, unless it’s to something low-energy that’s directly related to reducing my stress levels. My social life is restricted to daytime for the time being, which gets pretty lonely. I do a free acting class on Tuesdays during the day run by Milk Crate Theatre, because it’s really fun. We laugh a lot. Hanging out with homeless people is funnier than I would have expected.

My night time wind-down ritual involves turning the TV off early, lighting some candles, putting on some lavender aromatherapy oil in my burner, and playing relaxation music while lying on the lounge.

I’m also doing a massage course, which is good for calming the nervous system. I get together with other students to practise, so I’m getting lots of massages while also overcoming my fear of physical touch with strangers and learning a handy skill at the same time.

I was already on a low-sugar diet, so I’m still doing that. The Naturopath said that fruit was OK, and pointed out that some of the breakfast cereals I was eating had sugar in them. I’m avoiding them now.

I’m currently taking these supplements, which are intended to calm the adrenal glad, lower cortisol levels, and heal the nervous system:

  • An adrenal-calming herbal tonic twice a day. I haven’t asked what herbs are in it, but beware that some herbal medicines stimulate the adrenals, which isn’t what you want.
  • Vitamin C: 2000 mg (I take Blackmores BIO C)
  • Vitamin B12: 1000 mcg
  • Folic Acid: 500 mcg (No, I’m not pregnant)
  • Fish Oil: >800 EPA (I take Nature’s Own Liquid Fish Oil, which is easier to swallow than 3 high-potency capsules you’d need for the EPA dosage)
  • A multivitamin, just for the hell of it

The Naturopath also measured my breathing, and found that it was shallow and had too low a level of CO2. High CO2 level have a calming effect on the nervous system apparently. So now I do breathing exercises where I take a long slow in breath, and an even longer slow out breath. The idea is to slow the out breath down as far as possible. “It should feel as if you just want to gasp for air”, she said.

I’ve also been doing a regular meditation every day. After trying hundreds, I’ve settled on chanting the Oneness Chakra Meditation recorded by Ananda Giri because it’s the most calming I’ve tried.

Can’t say I’ve seen miraculous results yet, but it’s early days. I was on the right track before seeing the Naturopath, but there were a few things I was doing that weren’t helping me; like exercising too late in the day. The cool thing about having the cortisol test results is that I can do the test again in a few months to see if what I’m doing is having an effect on reducing the levels; even if I don’t feel radically better yet. I like at least having a metric that shows I’m heading in the right direction.

I was influenced to visit the Naturopath by Daniel Neuffer’s book CFS Unravelled, which recommends finding a health practitioner who is on top of this stuff. It’s hard to do it on your own. I spoke to Daniel via Skype (by a freak coincidence, he went to my high school) and he seems to genuinely want to help other CFS sufferers now that he’s recovered. His description of the mechanics behind CFS is the best I’ve come across; assuming he’s right. If so, I should be all better within a few months. I recommend Daniel’s book, with the reservation that following his advice hasn’t healed me… yet. It will be free on Amazon next week, since he really wants to get the word out.

I also recently came across another recovering CFS sufferer named Marissa Hakansson who saw her experience of CFS as a spiritual journey, and now teaches stress-reduction techniques to other people suffering from CFS. She specializes in helping women but I still found it really helpful talking to her; like Daniel’s book, it helped confirm that I was on the right path. I recommend contacting her if you’re stressed out and need someone to talk to who understands where you’re coming from.

I have a lot more free time now I get up so early in the morning. I’m spending it writing comedy on my home blog, in the hope of pursuing the dream of being a comedian when I’ve recovered. That probably won’t be until next year, since getting up on stage causes a huge adrenaline/cortisol rush; which definitely isn’t what I need right now. I can see now why getting up on stage and doing Improv caused me to have a meltdown. Oops.

When I’m not doing that, I’m playing my drums (but only in the mornings) or guitar. Or watching Woody Allen movies or other comedies to make me laugh. Occasionally I’ll meet up with a friend during the day. That pretty much fills up the time while I recover.

I still feel more anxious than I would like more of the time than I would like. I can see that some of the personal development courses I’ve done over the past few years in an attempt to address this haven’t been such a great idea in hindsight, given that I really had to push my body in order to get to them. I decided last night that I have power over my thoughts, and that thought makes me feel less anxious. I find this easier than doing the Stop-Stop-Stop technique that Gupta recommends, which is exhausting when the scary thoughts are coming thick and fast. Much of my anxiety is around thoughts like “This won’t work! I’ll never get better! I’m missing out! It’s taking too long!” I’ll just have to stick at it and see.

Author: Graham

I'm a guy in his late 40's, recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since May 2009. I now offer coaching and support to other people with CFS/ME.

10 thoughts on “My Cortisol levels are sky high”

    1. Hey nice blog,
      I just had Adrenal results showng significant elevated cortisol too. I was wandering are you able to find out the ingredients of the adrenal calming herbs at all?

      Many thanks,

      Tareq

      1. Hi Tareq. Thanks for your feedback! This post was over 3 years ago, and when I read it now I’m struck by a consistent theme: I do way too much stuff! What I needed the most back then, and am still learning now is to chill the f*#k out. I don’t recall the herbs having any real effect, and I don’t remember what was in them. I think what I found most helpful from the naturopath I was seeing was the breathing exercise to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, and having someone compassionate to talk to about what I was experiencing. If that interests you, drop me a line. Cheers, Graham

        1. I/m pretty sure my cortisone is very high. The symptoms correlate with it I think. I am 61 year old male and have had CFIDS since at least age 6.

          I am currently taking Primaforce Cissus Quadrangularis as a stop gap measure. It blocks the cortisone receptors of the body. It has many other healthy benefits too.

          I did jog about a couple miles and found that good but I wasn’t sure why until I realized the cortisol problem. Good pointer about exercise earlier part of the day.

          They also say Cortisone is inversely correlated to Testosterone Cissus is suppose to raise testosterone too.

  1. Hi Graham,

    I just stumbled upon your blog post about your cortisol levels. I suspect mine are sky-high too and just had a test done and am waiting for the results. I have been sick with “a cold” for the last seven months and just figured out it might be something like CFS. Normal life has almost completely ceased and I’m getting depressed slowly.
    How are you these days? Have you had any luck decreasing your cortisol?

    All the best,

    Danielle

    1. Hi Danielle,

      I haven’t had my levels tested again since the test described in this post; I’m certainly hoping they’re lower now, although I don’t think my naturopath got to the bottom of why they were so high to begin with. I’m guessing it’s because I was constantly anxious about being ill. That doesn’t seem quite so bad now; my main symptom is a tension in the head which tends to move around from time to time, and afternoon bouts of tiredness.

      Cheers,
      Graham

  2. Hey, I’ve been working on the same thing for the last two months. After reading CFS Unravelled, I had two months of good energy days! Then I decided it was time to go off my pain meds and the last month was a bit of a write off. At least I’m functioning okay and now without them, and hoping to get back to the place I was before that change. Keep telling myself that I have to do it even if nothing feels like it’s changing today, it’s all of those days, weeks, and months adding up to let the body heal itself and get to good change over the course of this year. I notice a big different in if I’m doing my walking every couple of days or not. Would like to follow how your recovery is going and I’ll update you on mine. 🙂

    1. Recovering does seem to take time. If there’s a quick fix, I haven’t found it. But I do seem to be getting better gradually. Sure, let’s track each others’ progress so we can keep motivated on the days we don’t feel like working on this. Cheers, Graham

  3. It’s interesting, the relationship between adrenaline, cortisol and chronic fatigue. When I was dealing with CFS through school I knew my stress levels were super high and it was affecting my physical functioning even more than CFS usually does.

    Sometimes it’s really hard to reduce the stress in your life and that can become a stress in itself. But getting our adrenaline levels up is a really bad idea and we need to avoid stress as much as we can (easier said than done).

    Maybe someone reading this could find my website of some help. It’s just lots of info about Chronic Fatigue and related issues. The url is:
    http://battlingcfs.com

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