A hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress, cortisol also plays an important role in the regulation of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Cortisol fights inflammation, helps regulate blood pressure and helps stabilise cardiovascular function. Cortisol regulates the body’s fight-and-flight syndrome, the body’s normal release of adrenalin by the adrenal glands. Low cortisol levels cause varying symptoms among individuals.
Because cortisol plays a significant role in blood pressure regulation and cardiovascular function, a low cortisol level often leads to hypertension and cardiac dysrhythmias in stressful situations. This is the stress not only from emotional situations but also the physical stress certain situations can place upon the body. The individual with low cortisol levels often suffers with hypostatic blood pressure, which is a condition in which the blood pressure drops suddenly when one stands or sits up quickly.
A low cortisol level causes the body’s immune system to become overly aggressive. This response causes an allergic reaction to an individual’s external environment, as well as an allergic reaction to one’s own body. Activation of certain autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's syndrome or lupus often occurs with low cortisol levels. This response of the immune system can make the individual more susceptible to infections.
Low cortisol levels often trigger the appearance of black freckles on the face, forehead and shoulders of individuals. Individuals with low cortisol levels also report symptoms of darkening areas of skin on other parts of the body. There may also be complaints of skin rashes accompanied by dry, itchy skin.
The individual suffering from decreased cortisol levels often complains of alternating periods of diarrhoea and constipation, loss of appetite and weight loss. Frequent abdominal pain that comes and goes is also a frequent complaint. The person suffering from low cortisol levels often complains of cravings for salty food or drinks, or may even have cravings for unusual substances such as clay or chalk. Physicians refer to this unusual craving as pica. This phenomenon of unusual cravings is especially prevalent in Addison’s disease, where the adrenal glands do not produce the correct amount of hormones.
Other symptoms indicative of low cortisol levels include irregular menstrual periods, absence of menstrual periods, back pain, dehydration and fainting. A study by the University of Minnesota found that young mothers who were depressed were more likely to suffer from low cortisol levels as compared to other young mothers who were not suffering depression symptoms.