The connection between high cortisol levels and trauma is crucial to understand. Stress and traumatic events affect the body more than you know. Particularly, the endocrine and nervous systems. You know cortisol as the “stress hormone.” I talk about it A LOT. It is produced by the adrenal glands and is responsible for your stress response. Its functions include regulating:

  • Blood sugar levels
  • Managing metabolism
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Assisting with memory formulation

It also controls the sleep-wake cycle and boosts energy so that you can handle stress and restores balance afterward. You may not recall experiencing any childhood or recent trauma in your adult life… Yet, your friends and family characterize you as being overstimulated, reactionary and unable to calm. ADHD, anxiety, panic and anger are normal for you because you are always “ready to react.” Have you have been working hard to manage stress, fuel and hydrate your body and move in a way that makes sense for your hormone balance? Yet, are you still overstimulated and unable to calm? Consider this. “Trauma” is the word that would describe a negative event you witnessed or personally experienced that was emotionally painful in nature. It may have overwhelmed your ability to cope in that moment.

The Role of Cortisol in Trauma and Stress

When you experience a traumatic event or severe stress, the body’s immediate response is to enter a state of heightened alertness. This is often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. This reaction is mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This rapidly increases cortisol production. Cortisol, along with adrenaline, prepares the body to deal with immediate threats. Everything will go up – your heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. This will provide your body with a burst of energy and strength.

When stress or trauma is chronic or if you relive trauma through PTSD or memories, the HPA axis can become dysregulated. This can lead to abnormal cortisol levels. In some cases, this means prolonged high levels of cortisol, which can have various detrimental health effects.

Consequences of Sustained High Cortisol Levels

  • Immune System Suppression: Chronic high cortisol levels can well, you can guess… it’s not good.
  • Mental Health Issues: There is a link between high cortisol levels and depression and anxiety. Additionally, it can exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD.
  • Memory and Cognition: High cortisol can impair cognitive functions, including memory and concentration.
  • Physical Health Impact: Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to medical conditions such as:
    • Hypertension
    • Cardiovascular disease
    • Weight gain
    • Metabolic issues like diabetes
  • Hormonal issues: Hello mood swings, being unable to calm, poor sleep, poor digestion, etc.

Addressing High Cortisol Levels Related to Trauma

Addressing trauma and managing cortisol levels can involve both psychological and physical approaches. You may want to try psychological interventions such as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Trauma-informed counseling
  • Or physical approaches like polyvagal exercises and nervous system regulation (my favorite – they’re FREE!!)

Should you Test your Cortisol levels with a Saliva Test?

Cortisol should rise in the morning and fall through the afternoon. So, don’t get a saliva test. Instead, get a full hormone panel so you have the whole picture. In my practice, we often get to a patient’s Root Cause of their hormone imbalances. Often we discover heavy metal, mold and candida overgrowth. Then, after following a tailored protocol to heal their gut and liver, if they are still experiencing overstimulation and an inability to calm, we’ll work towards resolving trauma through self-regulation.

Polyvagal Exercises & Nervous System Regulation

Polyvagal exercises are innovative tools designed to activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. Thereby, they promote a sense of calm and safety. They are rooted in Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. These exercises leverage the understanding that our nervous system controls our response to stress and perceived threats. By engaging in such activities, you can influence your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. This stimulation helps shift the body away from a fight-or-flight state. Instead, it moves towards a state of rest and digest, where healing and regeneration occur.

Nervous system regulation, in a lot of ways, can be the hormone balancing tool you never knew you needed.

Ten Vagal Toning Exercises to Try

  1. Shoulder shrug + release
  2. Hum
  3. Reach out to someone you love and really connect
  4. Stretch (knees-to-chest is my fave!)
  5. Sing
  6. Lay down and relax one muscle at time from feet to head
  7. Rebound
  8. Deep breathing (in for four counts – hold for four counts – exhale for eight)
  9. Close your eyes and orient your senses (what do you hear, smell, etc)
  10. Alternate nostril breathing

I like this list because it not only functions as stress management but can become a part of your self-care routine. Understanding how to self-regulate and lower cortisol has been one of the greatest gifts I gave myself. Additionally, practices like mindfulness meditation, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition can support the regulation of cortisol levels.

Don’t forget to explore more of my blog posts and reach out if you have any questions.

The information provided in this blog post is for informational purposes only. The information is a result of years of practice and experience by Dr. Francesca LeBlanc. However, this information is NOT intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician. Do not use the information provided in this post for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing medication or other treatment. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplement, or using any treatment for a health problem. Please, do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read on this website.