I first was exposed to signs of cortisol imbalances, cortisol testing, and in-depth education about nutrition for recovery at one of my jobs. My initial perspective was similar to pretty much everyone that I meet with- that people know when they are stressed or not and it’s out of their control. I thought when people would get their testing back, it would simply tell them what they already knew. As I started talking through symptoms with my clients and facilitating testing, I realized that was far from the truth. I started seeing completely different cases- including some overexercising (especially with cardio), some taking zero time for themselves pretty much all their lives, some having very poor sleep patterns consistently, and some pushing through their day with no energy or reliance on caffeine or “false” sources of energy. With each unique case and test results I could get more granular and individualized with my recommendations. The more I got into this, the more I saw some of these symptoms in myself. With this awareness, came a shift in priorities. One thing is for sure with everyone: you have ownership on how you prioritize your job, your family, your leisure and your health.
The Cortisol Basics
Cortisol impacts all of us everyday, but unfortunately most of us aren’t fully educated on it. The main point is it is not good nor bad. It has a purpose, and can raise blood sugar, raise blood pressure, and become involved in injury recovery, which all are adaptive mechanisms when necessary. The problem is when it is chronic or imbalanced. In a perfect world, it would rise in the morning and slowly taper off throughout the day. This unfortunately is not the case for some. If it is off, it can impact building or maintaining lean muscle mass, losing body fat, energy, cravings, blood sugar levels, mood, and immunity.
I had symptoms of highs and lows throughout the years, but mostly lows around the time of testing. For a pretty long time I had that “tired and wired” feeling, poor sleep quality, and cravings/ fatigue relieved by eating. After a while I started to see this shift to the “low cortisol” with lower energy, reliance on caffeine, brain fog, and poor recovery from workouts. At times (and I’ve noticed this with clients as well), it is tough to decipher between high and low symptoms, but I can generally spot just plain dysregulation.
My Habits & Shifts
Big pillars within my past were reliance on caffeine/ coffee (will always love it, but need to know the point where it affects my physiology), early emphasis on cardio/ HIIT training over other training in college and a little past, and mentality that I need to “power through” everything I do without an emphasis of recovery. I will admit that college Chelsea had ZERO emphasis on recovery. During grad school, I started focusing a little more on blood sugar stabilization, hydration, meal timing, and started yoga at least once a week, although admittedly it wasn’t enough with my work, school, and endurance training schedule. Post-grad school, I started into performance based recovery supplements and magnesium, which certainly helped. It wasn’t until recently I got my “low cortisol” test results that I started specific supplements for low cortisol (mitochondrial support) and even more of a focus of recovery with my well-rounded workout routine. I also began taking electrolytes on a regular basis. The big point here is this all took time and learning the hard way. I hope to create more of a straight path with my clients.
The biggest thing I reinforce in coaching is noticing and thinking through your symptoms. After a while, you can notice them right away, know why you have them, and know the right steps to get back on track. Unfortunately as a society we get used to “powering through” and “white knuckling” our way through life (I am guilty of this!). Valuing recovery is key for optimal, sustainable health.