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Supplements for Low Cortisol

By Mary Krane Derr

According to, insufficient adrenal hormones, including cortisol, can result in symptoms like “fatigue, body aches, unexplained weight loss, low blood pressure, lightheadedness, (and) loss of body hair.” Seek a competent physician for proper diagnosis and treatment of symptoms like these. If you do have low cortisol, you will likely need conventional medicine to stay alive. You may be able to also take supplements that you select carefully in consultation with your doctor, as long as you do not rely on them alone.

Functions of Cortisol

The cortex or outer layer of the adrenal gland, a small gland located on top of each kidney, synthesizes cortisol and secretes it into the bloodstream. Cortisol is the primary hormone of the body’s response to stress. It helps to make more glucose available to fuel the body by causing the liver to produce glucose from stored-up fats and proteins. Cortisol also helps to regulate blood pressure. It inhibits inflammation that the immune system mounts in response to infections or wounds.

Diagnosis and Cause of Low Cortisol

Hypocortisolism or cortisol insufficiency generally comes to medical attention because of the clinical symptoms linked to it. Yet it is not diagnosed until a laboratory test verifies low cortisol blood levels. Usually low cortisol results from Addison’s disease. This rare and serious endocrine disorder happens because the adrenal cortex sustains damage and loses its ability to make cortisol and aldosterone, another hormone essential to life. In poorer countries, Addison’s-related adrenal gland destruction most often arises from untreated tuberculosis, and in wealthier ones from autoimmune attacks.

Treatment of Addison's Disease

Proper medical treatment enables most people with Addison’s disease to live long, relatively healthy lives. Without such treatment, the condition rapidly becomes fatal. Most people with Addison’s must take an individualized combination of hydrocortisone pills, which replace cortisol, and fludrocortisone tablets, which replace aldosterone, a hormone that prevents fatally low blood pressure, dehydration and blood electrolyte imbalances. Good self-care in regard to diet, hydration, exercise, hot weather and other bodily stresses will help you achieve the most benefit from your medication routine.

Supplements in General

Especially because Addison’s disease and the medications used to treat it have multiple drug interactions, it is important to first clear any supplements -- whether vitamins, herbal formulas or anything else -- with your doctor. Remember that "natural" or "alternative" do not always mean "safe" or "risk-free." Because people with Addison’s disease may have a heightened risk of osteoporosis, sometimes their doctors prescribe calcium and vitamin D supplements for them.

Herbal Supplements

Before hormonal medications became available during the 1950s, Addison's disease led quickly to death. According to the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group, those "who experiment with ‘natural’ alternatives to their normal medication risk the same fate.“ Licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra, can create dangerous symptoms of excessive aldosterone, like hypertension. While offering an “Adrenal Tonic” composed of licorice, oat, ginkgo, Siberian ginseng and gota kola, naturopath Sharol Tilgner emphasizes that it "is not a substitute for qualified health care” and warns about the "very serious or even fatal " nature of adrenal disease without conventional medical treatment.

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