Muscle pain? Check your cortisol!

Most of you following my fight with Lyme know that muscle issues have been a primary concern. Diagnosed as fibromyalgia and TMJD, my main problem is that my muscles over fire. They tighten up at the slightest provocation and create an escalating stiffness that makes it hard for me to bend or flex without considerable pain. My most afflicted areas have been my traps, my erector spinea muscles, my hamstrings, and my butt. (Yes, I am quite literally a tight ass…) Oh, and how can I forget… the myriad of tiny muscles in my right jaw like to tighten too.

Happily, thanks to use of baclofen muscle relaxers (just 10mg 2x a day) and treatment of Lyme and Bartonella, those symptoms have been gone for months now and I am moving like a very normal human being these days.

That is, they were gone… until Saturday last week (April 23). I was bending over to bathe my dogs and I felt that old familiar tightness in my erector spineas. I struggled to get comfortably low enough for the thorough scrubbing the guys needed. Of course, I hoped this was just a fluke… bathing dogs is an acrobatic feat after all. But by the next morning, I could feel old faithful – the muscle knot that forms in my right trapezius – rising again. My hamstrings were tight enough that getting my hands within 6 inches of the floor became very tough. YIKES.

Of course, any time something like this happens, I get real nervous that Lyme is coming back and that I’ll suddenly start losing ground. A disease this insidious and devastating gives a girl PTSD, I swear.

But, when I confided in my friend Linse about the fears, she reassured me “girl, that may just be adrenals… it may not even be Lyme,” and a lightbulb went off! In months 8 and 9 of my treatment, while I was having a toxic reaction to rifabutin and rifampin, I really struggled with fatigue. In response to that, my doc had put me on an herbal supplement called “Cortisol Maintenance”. Ah ha!

Cortisol, you see, is a steroidal hormone produced by our bodies. Known as a “stress hormone”, it regulates lots of things: Blood sugar, fat protein and carbohydrate metabolism, immune response, anti-inflammatory actions, blood pressure, central nervous system activation and more.

By allowing my body to hold on longer to the cortisol it produced, she said, I’d have more energy. And she was right. BUT, this isn’t an ongoing problem for me. Aside from that time period when I was struggling with medication toxicity, fatigue tends not to be on my symptom list. If anything, my Lyme disease manifests the opposite way: anxiety, insomnia, excess energy and getting a little TOO mentally energetic. Needless to say, as soon as I got off rifampin and rifabutin, I probably should’ve also stopped the cortisol maintenance meds.

An unbalanced cortisol level in either direction can cause all sorts of problems.

Low cortisol:

  • Brain fog, cloudy-headedness and mild depression
  • Low thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances, such as hypoglycemia
  • Fatigue – especially morning and mid-afternoon fatigue
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lowered immune function
  • Inflammation

High cortisol:

  • Back aches and headaches
  • Poor sleep
  • Tired even with good sleep
  • Catching colds and other infections easily
  • Gaining fat, especially around the belly
  • Crave unhealthy foods
  • Low sex drive
  • Badly behaving guts
  • Delayed or missing menses
  • Blood sugar imbalances, such as hyperglycemia
  • Slow wound healing
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Anxiety, fear and fight / flight attacks

I realized upon inspection that during this same time that the muscle pain had been rebuilding, I’d also experienced a lot of insomnia and a very delayed period (enough to make a girl sweat she’d had an immaculate conception!) The lightbulb got brighter. So… easy fix for me. I quit the cortisol maintenance supplements and within 72 hours 80% of that muscle pain is gone. I trust the rest will fade away within another week or two.

Moral of the story? If you’re experiencing muscle aches, consider taking steps to reduce your cortisol. If you’re on cortisol promoting supplements like I was, that’s easy: Quit them (with your doctor’s permission of course). But even if you’re not, there’s easy stuff to do. Ideas include:


  • Eliminating caffeine
  • Cutting back on processed foods, simple carbohydrates and sugar
  • Avoid stressful entertainment sources like thrillers, who-dun-its, video games and negative gossip
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Make sure to ingest some fish oil (2,000 mg a day will lower cortisol)
  • Try some meditation; the Buddhify app is my very very favorite to recommend
  • Deliberately pursue laughs: watch a funny movie, read some comics, or call a good friend
  • Do some gentle exercises and stretching (no cardio or intense lifting)
  • Practice deep breathing; try breathing with this gif


If these simple fixes don’t work, you may need to have a chat with your doctor to make sure something else isn’t off. All sorts of thyroid and adrenal issues can impact cortisol levels.

Anyway, hoping my stumble backward helps you move forward. Wishing everyone lots of good health!




3 thoughts on “Muscle pain? Check your cortisol!

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