Dr. Meaghan Datema, ND

Don’t flatten this curve! How to prevent burnout when living in 2020.

All the talk this year has been about flattening the curve. Just because it works when talking about the spread of viruses, doesn’t mean it works in all aspects of your health. I am referring to the cortisol curve, a natural daily fluctuation in the amount of cortisol in your blood. If you are flattening this curve you are either tipping into a burnt out state or you are already there. So let’s not flatten this curve.

The cortisol curve

You have a little gland in your brain that controls the release of almost all of the hormones in your body called the hypothalamus. You can think of it as the control centre in your brain. Your hypothalamus monitors everything that is going on in your body and signals the body to make adjustments to ensure that everything is functioning optimally. One of the systems that it governs is your HPA Axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) aka, your stress response system. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland (the Master Hormone gland) which then signals the adrenal glands to change the level of cortisol production. The hypothalamus signals to the pituitary and adrenal glands to increase production of cortisol in the early morning so that levels peak ~2 hours after you get up. It then signals the pituitary and adrenal glands to decrease the production of cortisol throughout the afternoon and evening so that you are able to fall asleep. This is called your cortisol curve.

We all know that cortisol is the stress hormone, but what we don’t know is that it is essential to every day life. It is the hormone responsible for getting you out of bed in the morning and giving you that get up and go drive in the mornings, hence the peak of cortisol in the morning. Cortisol is also involved in the production of progesterone and estrogen and it is involved in balancing blood sugar.

Cortisol levels are supposed to drop in the evenings. Supposed to. When you are exposed to a stressful event, trigger, or just a busy day, your hypothalamus perceives this a stressor. It signals your adrenal glands to start increasing cortisol. But what about 2020. There are stressful situations coming our way all day. From government news updates, to irritable family members, to chaos in the grocery store, and changes to work. Instead of cortisol levels declining throughout the late morning and early afternoon, they are staying elevated all day. You may feel this as anxiousness, irritability, wired but tired etc. Your cortisol levels will start to be way too high in the morning and not dropping in the evening like they should.

What if this persists longer than a couple days? What if this lasts months or years. That may push you further into a burnout state. How do you know that you are almost there or there? Well then you start to notice that digestion feel off. Maybe you are having more frequent bowel movement, maybe less frequent. You are experiencing more bloating, gas, and burping. You are going to start seeing changes in your periods. Maybe PMS gets worse, maybe it starts 7 days prior to your period instead of 3, maybe you are more crampy throughout your period. You might see changes in the length of your cycle. Your cycle might be a bit longer than usual or more irregular. You might see mood changes. More anxiousness, more feeling low. More irritable or short with people. You might feel very tired and lethargic both in your body and in your brain. Your sleep patterns might start to shift. Perhaps more sleep, perhaps less.

Underneath all those changes that you are feeling are changes in the cortisol curve. When you are chronically exposed to stressful situations and your hypothalamus is continuously signally for more cortisol. At some point the adrenal glands stop listening or aren’t listening as well to your hypothalamus. This leads to irregular cortisol curve patterns. At that point you are in a burnout state and you have flattened your cortisol curve. You can see that in the picture to the right.

A DUTCH Test result showing a normal or appropriate cortisol levels throughout the course of a day
A DUTCH test result showing below optimal cortisol levels indicating HPA Axis hypo-functioning

Supporting the Cortisol curve

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to start to support your cortisol curve at home. I have divided what you can do into 3 categories: Morning, afternoon, and night. There are some strategies that help increase cortisol and others that help bring it down so it is important to know where you are on the dysfunction cortisol curve. That’s why I am here. I can help guide you through what to do when so that you get the best outcomes.


  • Move your body, it doesn’t really matter how
  • Eat a well rounded breakfast with a healthy source of fat, a good protein, and lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Consider adding in B vitamins or adaptogens if needed


  • Spend as much time as you can outside
  • Eat well balanced meals throughout the day to prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes
  • If you feel anxious or stress do a few rounds of box breathing (click here for a tutorial) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muahtBRDac8&ab_channel=AbiCarver
  • Stop drinking caffeine at least 8 hours before bed 


  • Dim the lights or put on blue light blocking glasses
  • Avoid screens for 2 hours before bed or activate the night shift mode on your devices. If your device doesn’t have night shift download the app f.lux which will activate it for you
  • Consider adding a calming supplement to your night-time routine

I like to test the cortisol curve with the DUTCH or CHI test so that we know exactly what your cortisol curve looks like. You may have heard me talking about them before, but they are urine tests that measure all of your hormones over the course of a complete day. These tests give us insights into what your estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol are doing and how they are functioning. All the cortisol curves in this blog post are pictures of the DUTCH test.

The cortisol curve is an amazing hormonal pathway when it is functioning correctly. When it is not, you need to get it back on track.

If you are interested in testing your cortisol and hormone levels or if you want help balancing this curve click the button above to book an appointment with me. Virtual consultations are also available to anyone who lives in Ontario.

Yours in health

grimsby naturopath

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