I’ve been on a journey to “understanding my body” and getting behind some of the medical concerns I have pertaining to my health. I’ve been stuck in a rut for a while now, feeling excessively tired, moody, skin breakouts and the list goes on, and on, and on.
Symptoms were vast and varied, leading me to seek answers from an endocrinologist (I had to do my homework about which doctor specialises in which ailments in order to find the right one).
DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A MEDICAL PRACTITIONER, EVERYTHING I SHARE IS RESEARCH AND PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.
What is an Endocrinologist?
An endocrinologist is a specially trained clinician who is qualified to diagnosis conditions that affect the glands. They may diagnose and treat hormone imbalances in the endocrine organs, which include the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries, testes and pancreas.
The glands in a person’s body release hormones. Endocrinologists treat people who suffer from hormonal imbalances, typically from glands in the endocrine system or certain types of cancers. The overall goal of treatment is to restore the normal balance of hormones found in a patient’s body.
Endocrinologists have the training to diagnose and treat hormone imbalances and problems by helping to restore the normal balance of hormones in the body. The common diseases and disorders of the endocrine system that endocrinologists deal with include diabetes mellitus and thyroid disorders.
It took about 3 days’ worth of reading and searching online to find an endocrinologist who would be able to listen and explain to me what was going on inside of me. I managed to get a last-minute appointment with one of the leading endocrinologists in Gauteng; there are very few of them in South Africa, which makes it a specialist doctor (at a specialist price).
Quite daunting going to a specialist (who works with high-risk patients) during Covid-19. And the pre-visit protocol and screening was dealt with in conjunction with the neighbouring hospital.
After an initial consultation of over an hour, which consisted of probing me for information from childhood to now, and family medical history as well as a brief physical examination.
Unfortunately these kinds of things might occur on a molecular level, and have physical evidence. However the doctor confirmed some of the ailments which I have been turning a blind eye towards and pointed out other symptoms/causes which I (thankfully) did not yet experience.
From a long line of questions and discussing the typical hormonal journey, it was safe to assume I was not menopausal (which at some point I seriously suspected).
However, the doctor insisted that we take a closer look at hormone levels, cortisol, sugar etc. The blood tests would be done the following day, after a night of rest and fasting.
Testing and prodding
I’ve been exposed to a battery of tests the last couple of weeks to determine what could be the cause of my general “ailments”.
Urine and blood tests, as well as imaging technology and other tools, may be used to:
- Measure the levels of various hormones in the patient’s body.
- Identify a tumour, nodule, or other abnormality on one of the endocrine glands.
- Determine if certain endocrine glands are working as they should.
After the first round of blood tests, the results were processed and the “good doc” gave me a call. She explained the results and spikes they tend to look for on the results; again reassuring me that it is not a reproductive hormone issue.
But she was extremely surprised at my blood sugar level being 10 times higher than what it should be. This again indicates that something is overcompensating or under-utilising; which leads to Hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar), which in turn can turn into Diabetes.
We inspected the various causes for the high counts; cortisol was definitely the most suspected culprit. *Adrenalin is released during periods of stress, adrenaline triggers cortisol to kick in and in my case the Cortisol count was normal . Nothing too concerning; however I’ve experienced the symptoms from “high Cortisol levels” (Cushing’s syndrome)
*Your adrenal glands are composed of two sections. The interior (medulla) produces adrenaline-like hormones. The outer layer (cortex) produces a group of hormones called corticosteroids. Corticosteroids include:
- Glucocorticoids. These hormones, which include cortisol, influence your body’s ability to convert food into energy, play a role in your immune system’s inflammatory response and help your body respond to stress.
- Mineralocorticoids. These hormones, which include aldosterone, maintain your body’s balance of sodium and potassium to keep your blood pressure normal.
- Androgens. These male sex hormones are produced in small amounts by the adrenal glands in both men and women. They cause sexual development in men, and influence muscle mass, sex drive (libido) and a sense of well-being in both men and women.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because of its role in the body’s stress response. But cortisol is about more than just stress.
High cortisol can cause a number of symptoms throughout your body. Symptoms can vary depending on what’s causing the increase in your cortisol levels.
General signs and symptoms of too much cortisol include:
- weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
- weight gain and rounding of the face
- thinning skin
- easy bruising
- flushed face
- slowed healing
- muscle weakness
- severe fatigue
- difficulty concentrating
- high blood pressure
What do high cortisol levels mean?
A high cortisol level can mean several things.
High cortisol may be referred to as Cushing syndrome. This condition results from your body making too much cortisol. (Similar symptoms can arise after taking high doses of corticosteroids, so it’s recommended that this be ruled out before testing for Cushing syndrome).
Some common symptoms of Cushing syndrome include:
- fatty deposits in the midsection, face, or between the shoulders
- purple stretch marks
- weight gain
- slow-healing injuries
- thinning skin
Several things can contribute to the development of high cortisol.
Stress triggers a combination of signals from both hormones and nerves. These signals cause your adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
The result is an increase in heart rate and energy as part of the fight-or-flight response. It’s your body’s way of preparing itself for potentially dangerous or harmful situations.
Cortisol also helps to limit any functions that aren’t essential in a fight-or-flight situation. Once the threat passes, your hormones return to their usual levels. This whole process can be a lifesaver.
Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on almost all of your body’s processes, increasing your risk of many health issues, from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression.