Cortisol isn’t bad; you need it to help regulate your responses to life. Regulation involves a very complex interplay of feedback loops between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, says Dr. Singh.
“In general, cortisol levels tend to peak in the late morning and gradually decline throughout the day,” he explains. “When a stressful event occurs, the increased cortisol will work alongside our ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms to either upregulate or downregulate bodily functions. [Affected systems include] the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, or immune system.”
In addition to normal processes that trigger or suppress cortisol release, levels can also be affected by different medical conditions, Dr. Singh says. For example, if someone has abnormally high levels of cortisol, this is called Cushing’s syndrome, which is typically caused by a tumor affecting any of the glands that take part in the process of cortisol production.
When people suffer from abnormally low levels of cortisol, it’s called Addison’s disease. It generally occurs due to adrenal gland dysfunction, but could also be the result of abnormal functioning of any of the other glands in the cortisol production process.
Finally, if you use corticosteroid medications such as prednisone or dexamethasone, prolonged use will result in excessive cortisol production, Dr. Singh says.
“If the medication is not adequately tapered down when discontinued, the body’s ability to create cortisol can become permanently impaired,” he says.
Maria Fleseriu, MD
Professor of Medicine and Neurological Surgery
Oregon Health & Science University
Irina Bancos, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
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Today is the final day of the Cushing’s Awareness Challenge and I wanted to leave you with this word of advice…
To that end, I’m saving some of what I know for future blog posts, maybe even another Cushing’s Awareness Challenge next year. Possibly this has become a tradition.
I am amazed at how well this Challenge went this year, giving that we’re all Cushies who are dealing with so much. I hope that some folks outside the Cushing’s community read these posts and learned a little more about us and what we go through.
So, tomorrow, I’ll go back to posting the regular Cushing’s stuff on this blog – after all, it does have Cushing’s in its name!
I am trying to get away from always reading, writing, breathing Cushing’s, and trying to celebrate the good things in my life, not just the testing, the surgery, the endless doctors.
If you’re interested, I have other blogs about traveling, friends, fun stuff and trying to live a good life, finally. Those are listed in the right sidebar of this blog, past the Categories and before the Tags.
More from Dr. Karen Thames:
Myth: “Vitamins and Natural Remedies can cure/heal Cushing’s”
Fact: Do you know how many people have told me that if I just “juice”, I will be cured from Cushing’s or Adrenal Insufficiency?! I appreciate the sentiment, but the sad reality is that no amount of juicing and no vitamin will cure Cushing’s. Some Cushing’s patients do take vitamins, some do eat raw food or paleo diets, and some even juice. However, this is just a lifestyle choice and not an attempt to cure Cushing’s. I must admit that when you have such a dreadful disease, you do sometimes take desperate measures to heal yourself. Perhaps, doing acupuncture or some other form of natural healing technique seems attractive at times. Take it from a person who has had acupuncture, seen many natural doctors, juiced, took vitamins, ate a raw food diet, and yes, I EVEN did a series of colonics! If you have ever had colonics, you know that it brings new meaning to the phrase, “no pain, no gain!”
Seriously, this is all before I knew I had Cushing’s. I watched as every person who administered the different kinds of treatment scratched their heads as I continued to gain weight, eventually at a rate of 5 pounds per week! They couldn’t believe that I was actually still gaining weight. Their natural and not surprising response, of course, was to project blame onto me. “Karen, there is NO way you are following protocol! You MUST be lying on your food log!” What we all didn’t realize is that I was suffering from a life-threatening illness called Cushing’s Disease that caused morbid obesity in me and that none of those “remedies” would EVER work!
Now, I have already been in Twitter wars over this topic. Someone tried to tell me that a raw food diet will “cure Cushing’s” and then she told me that I am “ignorant and in denial”! She proceeded to tell me that her daughter, though she had surgery to treat Cushing’s, was REALLY cured because of changing her diet. She also told me that the daughter, who had her Adrenal Glands removed, didn’t need steroids. Listen folks, this is VERY dangerous! I have no adrenal glands and I NEED steroids! Cortisol is life sustaining and you will die without it! I fully expect that someone will argue this point until the cows come home. It doesn’t matter. It won’t change the facts. Cushing’s is caused by excess cortisol in the body. The ONLY treatment is to target the source of the excess cortisol (i.e.brain tumor, adrenal tumor, ectopic tumor, or prolonged steroid use for another disease). Targeting the source is the first line of treatment. Cushing’s Syndrome/Disease will lead to death if not treated properly! #BattlegroundDiagnosis
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. Please seek the advice of a medical professional if you have questions or need further assistance.
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People sometimes ask me how I found out I had Cushing’s Disease. Theoretically, it was easy. In practice, it was very difficult.
In 1983 I came across a little article in the Ladies Home Journal which said: “If you have these symptoms…”
I found the row with my symptoms and the answer read “…ask your doctor about Cushing’s”.
After that article, I started reading everything I could on Cushing’s, I bought books that mentioned Cushing’s. I asked and asked my doctors for many years and all of them said that I couldn’t have it. It was too rare. I was rejected each time.
Due to all my reading at the library, I was sure I had Cushing’s but no one would believe me. My doctors would say that Cushing’s Disease is too rare, that I was making this up and that I couldn’t have it.
In med school, student doctors are told “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras“.
According to Wikipedia: “Zebra is a medical slang term for a surprising diagnosis. Although rare diseases are, in general, surprising when they are encountered, other diseases can be surprising in a particular person and time, and so “zebra” is the broader concept.
The term derives from the aphorism “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra”, which was coined in a slightly modified form in the late 1940s by Dr. Theodore Woodward, a former professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Since horses are the most commonly encountered hoofed animal and zebras are very rare, logically you could confidently guess that the animal making the hoofbeats is probably a horse. By 1960, the aphorism was widely known in medical circles.”
So, doctors typically go for the easily diagnosed, common diseases. Just because something is rare doesn’t mean that no one gets it. We shouldn’t be dismissed because we’re too hard to diagnose.
When I was finally diagnosed in 1987, 4 years later, it was only because I started bleeding under the skin. My husband made circles around the outside perimeter each hour with a marker so my leg looked like a cut log with rings.
When I went to my Internist the next day he was shocked at the size of the rings. He now thought I had a blood disorder so he sent me to a Hematologist/Oncologist.
Fortunately, that new doctor ran a twenty-four-hour urine test and really looked at me and listened to me. Both he and his partner recognized that I had Cushing’s but, of course, couldn’t do anything further with me. They packed me off to an endo where the process started again.
My final diagnosis was in October 1987. Quite a long time to simply “…ask your doctor about Cushing’s”.
Looking back, I can see Cushing’s symptoms much earlier than 1983. But, that ‘s for a different post.
Myth: Even though you are chronically ill, you should have the same amount of energy every day. “You look SO good and you went to that party last month! Why can’t you come to MY party?!” When you say you are not well enough to do something, you are just making excuses. You could do it, just like you did that other thing; you are just choosing not to!
Fact: You may have heard me talk about “The Spoon Theory”. It was created by someone named Christine Miserandino, to explain the experience of someone with chronic illness in terms of using energy to live and to complete tasks every day. Though the myth assumes that one should have the same amount of energy all the time; the fact is that energy levels fluctuate and people who are chronically ill must make conscious decisions about what they can spend their energy on.
Christine Miserandino (2010) uses the spoon theory to answer the question, “What does it feel like to be sick?” The spoons serve as a symbol for resources available and energy spent to get through every moment of every day. Miserandino states that “The difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to”. Most people who get sick feel a loss of a life they once knew. When you are healthy, you expect to have a never ending supply of spoons. But, when you are not well, you need to count your spoons to keep track and you can never forget about it or take it for granted. Each task costs a spoon and each spoon is not to be taken for granted. Miserandino (2010) asks, “Do you know how many spoons people waste every day?”
Patients use the metaphor of a banking system. In this system, patients must make a withdrawal of a spoon every time they complete a task. Cushing’s and Adrenal Insufficiency patients talk about the “Cortisol Bank” metaphor. The concept is the same and the idea is that certain stressors and/or tasks cause one’s body to make a cortisol withdrawal from the body. Bad things happen when there is a cortisol deficit, meaning that there is not enough cortisol in the body for one to live everyday because of the amount of cortisol that has already been used up. If a person continues to draw from the bank on an account that is already negative, the situation can become worse and worse as each day passes.
Something needs to happen in order to start making appropriate deposits. This can include, taking more medication (stress dosing or an emergency shot), resting, getting adequate physical and emotional support and help, and saying “NO!”. Even when in a deficit, many patients have a difficult time saying “no” to an invitation to an event, completing a task, or engaging someone in a way that will use up more energy because of their fear of their loved one’s reactions. Much of the time, this fear is warranted because of the actual reactions they have received. Ever heard, “But you volunteered for the bake sale last week! You must be better! Why can’t you come to church this week?!”. You may have heard something similar.
It is important for loved ones to understand the amount of “spoons” it takes for a chronically ill person just to get through every single day. EVERYTHING costs spoons! The amount of spoons paid by each person varies from person to person. It all depends on that individual’s situation, body, level of illness, etc. What is common for all, though, is that spoons must be used and eventually those spoons run out. In order to avoid becoming sick or to recuperate from getting sick, the chronically ill patient must evaluate how he/she will use spoons and what tasks can be feasibly completed that day or week. Please understand that when the chronically ill patient says, “YES” to you; he/she is making a conscious choice to use up spoons to meet your need, request, or demand. Talking on the phone, going out to lunch, making dinner, coming to your event all required a sacrifice of another task that day or week. Your friend may have come to lunch with you but that required that she skipped washing the dishes that day or washing her hair, or is even giving up doing something important the next day. Instead of being angry at your friend, please consider why the request is denied at times.
Refer to the attached picture. This is not an exact science but gives some idea of the spoon bank. If you have time, try doing this exercise: Lay out 8-12 physical spoons. As you complete certain tasks throughout the day, use this chart to subtract spoons from your pile.
Each and every thing requires a spoon. Taking a shower, washing your hair, cooking, cleaning, watching a movie, going out to lunch, working, writing this post (Ha)! When you are done with your day, notice how many spoons you have left. Observe your feelings after this exercise. You can even do it for a week. Lay out a certain amount of spoons for every day for seven days. If you go into a deficit, borrow spoons from the following day. However, if you do borrow spoons; you must take away a task that you WERE planning to originally do that day. Notice what happens and notice how you feel at the end of the week.
You can view “The Spoon Theory” in its entirety at: http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
Can you think of any other tasks that are not on this chart? Help our friends who are doing the activity. List those tasks and assign how many spoons each task will require.
Get out of bed- 1 Spoon
Shower- 2 Spoons
Attend Special Event- 5 Spoons
Go out for Coffee- 4 Spoons
Drive- 4 Spoons
Make a Phone Call- 3 Spoons
Work- 5 spoons
Play Games-3 Spoons
Clean the House- 5 Spoons
Have a Meal- 2 Spoons
Walk the Dog- 4 Spoons
Study- 5 Spoons
Watch TV- 3 Spoons
Ironing- 5 Spoons
Exercise- 4 Spoons
Shopping- 4 Spoons
Read- 2 Spoons
Catch Public Transport- 4 Spoons
Cook- 4 Spoons