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Put the Brakes on Cortisol Overdrive

By Jodi Cohen

Woman making a funny face with hands raised near her head like moose antlers.

The stress hormone cortisol plays a critical role in regulating our body’s homeostasis.  It is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress and acts as an accelerator for blood sugar levels, heart rate and respitory levels.  It also puts the brakes on any activities that are not crucial to immediate survival, including our immune system, including anti-inflammatory actions.



This acceleratory mechanism is necessary for surviving acutely stressful situations, but our bodies are not meant to stay in high gear all the time.  To maintain homeostasis and health, we need to down shift and brake to give our bodies the break they need to rest, repair and heal.

A good friend likes to say, “You can’t mow the lawn when the house is on fire.”  The same is true for the body’s ability to heal when it is flooded with cortisol.


Cortisol Overdrive


Our body responds to stress by triggering a complex hormonal cascade in the endocrine system, involving the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenals and known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.  Cortisol is one of the key hormones that communicates between these organs.

The general hormonal cascade flows like this:

  • The hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH)
  • This signals the anterior pituitary to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone).
  • ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol to raise the sugar in your bloodstream to increase energy for stress response.

These interactions continue until your hormones reach the levels that your body needs, and then a series of chemical reactions known as the negative feedback loop begins to switch them off.  In other words, when the hypothalamus receives the signal that cortisol levels in the body are sufficient, it inhibits CRH release, signaling the adrenals to stop releasing cortisol.  So long as the hypothalamus is able to correctly send and receive signals, cortisol levels in the body should return to balance.

But just like a race cars that flies around the race track without taking a pit stop to allow for repairs, the hypothalamus can suffer from delayed maintenance, especially after months or even years of chronic and prolonged stress have taken a toll

In other words, the cortisol brakes have worn out.   This often results in excess cortisol being released into the system


When Your Cortisol Levels Are Too High

Our bodies are no longer designed to be in a constant state of extreme survival mode, so when cortisol production kicks into overdrive, it affects the entire body in a breakdown process that basically ages people before their time.


Symptoms of Cortisol Overdrive

Backaches and headaches:   High cortisol levels deplete the adrenal glands.  This raises prolactin levels, increasing the body’s sensitivity to pain, such as backaches and muscle aches.  Excessive cortisol can also make the brain overly sensitive to pain, triggering headaches.

Poor sleep: Cortisol levels should drop at night to allow for restful sleep. When cortisol levels are elevated in the evening, it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, making it difficult to fall asleep.

Fatigue:  High cortisol levels deplete the adrenal glands and can contribute to fatigue

Weight gain: Cortisol can contribute to weight gain, especially around the abdomen.

Always sick:  Cortisol down regulates your immune system, rendering more likely to catch colds and other infections easily.

Sugar and carbohydrate cravings:  Cortisol raises your blood sugar levels which can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster.  When blood sugar levels drop, you crave sugar and carbohydrates for fast fuel.

Low sex drive: Cortisol has been called the anti-Viagra because high levels of cortisol lower libido-inducing hormones like testosterone.

Gut issues: The gut is super sensitive to stress hormones.  High cortisol levels can contribute to symptoms like nausea, heartburn, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, or constipation.

Anxiety: High cortisol levels can make you feel anxious and jittery.

Depression: High levels of cortisol suppress production of the happy hormone serotonin.


How to Put the Brakes on Cortisol

Remember that race car speeding around the track.  If it stops for a pit stop and gets the tires rotated or changed, it is much less likely to cause long term damage.  The same is true for our bodies, we need to put the brakes on the cortisol release by supporting the organs of stress.


Essential Oils for Cortisol Brakes

Adrenal® :  These small, triangular-shaped glands secrete cortisol to regulate energy production and storage, control blood sugar, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to rapidly respond to stress.  The health and resilience of the adrenals (along with the hypothalamus and hippocampus) help to determine our tolerance to stress.  To help keep your adrenals balanced and not over releasing cortisol, apply 1- 2 drops of the Adrenal®  on the adrenal glands (lower mid-back, one fist above the 12th rib on each side) upon waking, before bed and throughout the day as needed.

Hypothalamus™ :  This pearl size region of the brain located just above the brain stem serves as control center for neural and hormonal messages received from/sent to body, including signals to trigger the release of cortisol.  The ability of the hypothalamus to receive clear messages from the body is critical as all outgoing endocrine and neural signals are based on the clarity of these incoming signals, including the ability to put the brakes on cortisol release.  To optimize the ability of the hypothalamus to send and receive signals, apply 1 drop of Hypothalamus™ on forehead slightly above the third eye up to 6 times daily.

Circadian Rhythm® :  Our sleep/wake cycle, known as our circadian rhythm, requires the release of melatonin, a hormone crucial to sleep.  Melatonin has an antagonist relationship to the stress hormone cortisol and the two hormones in conjunction help regulate our circadian rhythms.  This means that when cortisol is high, melatonin is low.  Chronic and prolonged stress triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol and throws off the body’s natural cortisol/melatonin rhythm. Cortisol should be high in the mornings when you wake up and gradually taper off throughout the day so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep.  High levels of cortisol at night, drive down melatonin and make it difficult to fall asleep.  To return the circadian rhythms to balance and put the brakes on the nighttime release of cortisol, apply Circadian Rhythm® above ears, on top of skull and very back of the head before bed.



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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.