You might not realize these things can cause high cortisol

Grappling with the stress hormone and our symptoms with Cushing's

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by Noura Costany |

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Cushing’s disease has, over time, made me a very stressed-out individual. That’s no surprise, considering that Cushing’s raises levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. More stress creates more cortisol. And when my cortisol rises and I get the test results, that stresses me out, too.

Considering that I have multiple jobs to work, two chronic illnesses to manage, cats to take care of, social media accounts to run, and a social calendar to fulfill, my life is a never-ending cycle of stress.

Thankfully, I have some everyday ways to keep my cortisol in the normal range and support a healthy lifestyle, despite my chronic illness. Please note that these are all in addition to treatment. I’d never recommend trying to cure Cushing’s disease only by following these tips!

Drugs and nicotine

Marijuana can have a significant effect on cortisol, either raising or lowering it, depending on the strain. When I used it, my menstrual cycle was messed up, with my periods coming two weeks early or three weeks late, or lasting 14 days.

As much as I recognize that marijuana can relieve pain, I also believe that, if used often, pot can be detrimental to Cushing’s disease patients. As a further concern in my case, I’m working toward freezing my embryos this year, so I need my cycle to be as regular as possible. For these reasons, marijuana isn’t an option for me.

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Nicotine is also known to raise cortisol. Since I was never a big smoker, I had an easy time giving up the habit. I recognize that the transition might be tougher for a lot of people, though. Many have given up smoking with the help of nicotine patches, as well as other supports. But if that isn’t possible for you, I’d suggest discussing with your doctor how it affects your cortisol and trying to find a healthy solution.

Caffeine and food

Caffeine increases your cortisol, too, especially if you consume a lot of it. This change was the most difficult for me to grapple with, but it was extra important to me because I have serious insomnia issues.

I used to drink coffee every single day, and it kept me going when times were particularly tough. Now I’m down to one to two cups of coffee and one to two glasses of iced tea each week. I’m not perfect — those glasses are always the largest glasses my hands can hold! — but it’s progress. Lowering my caffeine intake is hard work, but I’m committed to keeping my cortisol in a normal range.

Diet can affect cortisol levels as well. Taking in less sugar and carbohydrates and more vegetables and protein has helped me tremendously. Fish, nuts, omega-3 fatty acids, and supplements for iron and vitamins C, D, and E have also helped me maintain a normal cortisol level. I add turmeric and chia seeds to soups, salads, and similar dishes to help me avoid inflammation and constipation.

Some people think fasting will help them, especially since Cushing’s disease can cause so many cravings. But studies have found that fasting actually increases cortisol, so don’t stop eating! Just maintain a healthy, sustainable diet.

Sleeping regularly

Sleeping regularly is incredibly tough for me. Cushing’s disease can cause insomnia, and I deal with it almost every night. We’re working on adjusting my medications to help me sleep, but it’s not easy. And a lack of sleep can cause high cortisol, which feels unfair since my high cortisol is what won’t let me sleep!

Melatonin has helped some people get their rest, partly by lowering cortisol. Discuss this supplement with your doctor, though, as we should be careful with it when we’re having tests or taking other treatments.

Despite all the above, Cushing’s disease can’t be treated simply by changing your diet or getting more sleep. But adjustments to these routines and habits can help, both in the short and long terms. This knowledge gives me some semblance of control and allows me to feel that I’m an active participant in my care.

What do you do in your everyday life to help manage your stress? Please share in the comments below. You can also follow my journey on TikTok and YouTube.

Note: Cushing’s Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cushing’s Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Cushing’s.


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