Do you need to re-establish you Cortisol Circadian Rhythm? I’ve talk a lot previously about overtraining (or exercising too much), which can contribute to excess cortisol in our systems. Over time our adrenal glands can become ‘fatigued’ from producing too much cortisol, which means they no longer have the capacity to produce this hormone effectively. And this leads to poor sleeping patterns. This can throw our cortisol circadian rhythm off balance.

What is our Cortisol Circadian Rhythm?

In the morning, when the sun begins to shine on us, it stimulates our hypothalamus (via our optic nerves or retina), which releases a hormone (corticotropin releasing hormone or CRH) to tell our pituitary gland to release a hormone (adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH) to tell our adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Confusing? Basically, there is a cascade of hormone release that starts with the shining of the sun to our adrenal glands producing cortisol. Once cortisol is released, it helps to wake us up. Cortisol release is naturally highest in the morning and lowest after the sun goes down in the night. It has a natural rhythm that is affected by the shining of the sun. When cortisol levels are high, melatonin (hormone secreted by the pineal gland that makes us sleepy) levels are low and vice versa.

This cortisol circadian rhythm can be disrupted by:

  • jetlag
  • night shift workers
  • keeping lights on in the bedroom at night
  • staring at a computer screen or tv at night
  • adrenal insufficiency (adrenal glands cannot produce cortisol)

When this cycle is disrupted we begin to have symptoms such as:

  • difficulty waking up in the morning
  • needing coffee or nicotine to function in the morning
  • no appetite in the morning
  • no motivation in the morning
  • lowest energy of the day in the first hour after awakening

Not getting proper sleep at the proper times (read more here) can lead to decreases in immune function, lowered growth hormone production, difficulty losing weight, and inflammation. When one gets to the stage where their cortisol circadian rhythm is not functioning properly, sleep gets harder and harder. And it can become more and more frustrating. Sleep is the time the body takes to repair itself, from all the injury during the day, which includes from stress, diet, and exercise. Missing this critical sleep time in the maintenance of our physical bodies can result in layers of problems.

How to re-establish the Cortisol Awakening Response (aka get your ass outta bed response)

The first step to understanding how your cortisol functions is to have a cortisol spit test that is ordered by your doctor. You will receive vials and instructions to take home with you. At different hours throughout the day, you will spit into a different vial. To have the most accurate data, several days worth of data (or spit) should be collected.

Once it has been established that you are producing low amounts of cortisol in the morning (when you should be producing the most), a reconnection of the Cortisol Awakening Response must be initiated. Note: If you have high amounts of cortisol in the morning, the below treatment will cause you to go into metabolic overtraining syndrome, or excessive cortisol.

The pattern in a poor cortisol awakening response (which is low cortisol production in the morning when it should be the highest) may sound like an adrenal fatigue problem, however direct treatment of the adrenal glands only will ultimately not solve this issue. In this case, the brain also needs to be stimulated and nutritionally supported. This may be an approach that your doctor will take to re-establish a normal cortisol awakening response below.

Adrenotone™ is a combination of standardized herbs and nutrients which are known for rejuvenating the adrenals. This product is designed to promote healthy cortisol levels, hypothalamic and pituitary function (HPTA axis), and catecholamine production (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine). Adrenotone should be taken daily with meals.

cortisol awakening response

In addition to support for the brain and adrenal glands, you will also need to utilize exercise. Studies indicate that the only type of exercise that caused significant elevations of salivary cortisol was high intensity. No significant changes in cortisol were seen in people resting, or performing low to moderate intensity exercise. To use this theory, those with low levels of morning cortisol should perform high intensity exercise to exhaustion within the first 10 minutes of waking (I know this sounds difficult to those with this problem). This exercise should not be performed for more than 5 minutes. For example, you can do push-ups, deep squats, jump rope, or running in place at a high intensity for 5 minutes.

Those with low morning cortisol levels will also want to get adequate sleep at night. Measures to take include turning off lights when it get close to bedtime. The optimal time to go to sleep is 10 pm so that natural circadian rhythms can function and your body begin to heal from the day. If lights are still needed, you can use blue lights, which do not disturb the release of melatonin. Remember, melatonin is released when the sun is gone and makes you sleepy. When melatonin is secreted, cortisol will not be.

For the sake of your adrenals, it is also recommended to avoid overtraining, which you can read about here. And to avoid foods that you are allergic to and that cause inflammation, such as processed sugars, flours, and vegetable oils.

Bringing your adrenal glands back to health is a process, and takes time and consideration of all the ways your habits are influencing them. It’s always important to note that if there is a decreased state of functioning, it took time for you to get there… so it will take time to come back to health. And we all deserve health. So let’s get it.

My love,

Dr. Kristin

[disclaim]This article is meant as an educational piece. It is not meant to replace diagnosis and treatment through a qualified medical practitioner. As I am a qualified medical practitioner, I do not know the details of everyone who will read this article. There can always be individual pieces of information that change a treatment plan. Please see your doctor.[/disclaim]


Effects of exercise at three exercise intensities on salivary cortisol. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 May;16(2):286-289.

Daily timing of salivary cortisol responses and aerobic performance in lean and obese active females. Bratisl Lek Listy. 2011;112(4):213-217.