Stress. We all experience it and know how difficult it is to cope with.
And while stress can be caused by a variety of things, what you may not know is exactly what’s going on in your body when you feel it.
Specifically, there’s a hormone that kicks in when you feel stress: cortisol.
Cortisol is one of the steroid hormones made in the adrenal glands. Having too much or too little cortisol can result in long-term illness. This means it’s crucial that your body’s cortisol levels remain balanced to provide optimum health and appropriate benefits from this hormone.
Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.
So, how do you know if you have the right level of cortisol in your body? Blood tests measure the level, and doctors can interpret the results to determine if your cortisol level is too high or too low.
But it’s not enough to just know your cortisol levels. You also need to know how to reduce them.
Where is Cortisol Produced?
Cortisol is made by your adrenal glands — two small glands situated on top of the kidneys. Along with helping you respond to stress, cortisol plays a vital part in other body functions, including when and how the body breaks down carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins.
Most cells within the body have cortisol receptors. The hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands (the HPA axis) control the secretion of the hormone.
Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day and night in a rhythm that mimics our sleep patterns, with the hormone release peaking at about 8 AM and falling to its low point around 4 AM.
While it is essential to your overall health for the adrenals to secrete more cortisol in stressful situations, it is also very important that bodily functions and cortisol levels return to normal following a stressful event.
The Connection Between Cortisol and Stress
Your body has certain automated functions that enable you to function effectively. For example, when you perceive a threat, the hypothalamus, a tiny gland at the base of the brain, alerts the systems in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this alert prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies, the essentials of the fight or flight response. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of sugar, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues in the event that the threat causes damage.
Cortisol also slows nonessential or detrimental functions that would hamper a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and slows the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. This complex, natural alert system also communicates with areas of your brain that control fear, mood, and motivation.
So, when a stress event occurs, your body naturally follows this progression
- A complex hormonal cascade ensues, and the adrenal glands release cortisol.
- Cortisol prepares the body’s systems for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose (sugar), an immediate energy source.
- Cortisol stops insulin production to prevent glucose from being stored, allowing for its immediate use.
- Cortisol narrows the arteries while epinephrine increases heart rate. This forces blood to pump harder and faster.
- The individual addresses and resolves the situation.
- Hormone levels return to normal.
Unfortunately, in the high stress environment of current society, many people are finding themselves with the inability to control their fight or flight response, resulting in too much cortisol in their systems.
The Dangers Of Too Much Cortisol
Short Term Problems
There are some very specific signs that point to an overproduction of cortisol. These ten problems, explains Lisa Rankin, are good indicators that your cortisol levels aren’t right.
- Poor sleeping patterns
- Feelings of exhaustion even with good sleep
- Weight gain, especially around the abdomen, even with good diet and exercise
- Susceptibility to colds and other infections
- Craving unhealthy foods
- Regular back pain and headaches
- Lowered sex drive
- Gut discomfort and irregularity
- Increased anxiety
- Increased depression
Long Term Effects
While the above signs are noticeable any time, there are some long term problems that come with excess cortisol
- Blood Sugar Imbalance and Diabetes
- Immune System Suppression
- Gastrointestinal Problems
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Fertility Problems
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Thyroid disorders
- Weight Gain and Obesity
Weight gain and obesity are very dangerous to one’s overall health. While the other symptoms of cortisol overload tend to be more outside a person’s control, there are steps you can take to reduce weight gain and keep this symptom under control.
Controlling Cortisol and Weight Gain
Repeated elevations of cortisol can lead to weight gain. This happens in a few different ways.
One way is through visceral fat storage. Cortisol can bring triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deep in the abdomen). Also, visceral fat cells have more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat, which means they will grab onto extra cortisol more quickly than other cell types.
A second way in which cortisol may be involved in weight gain is connected to the blood sugar and insulin problem. Consistently high blood glucose levels, along with slow insulin production, lead to cells that are starved of glucose. When those cells are crying out for energy, they send hunger signals to the brain. This can lead to overeating, and unused glucose is stored as body fat.
Another connection is cortisol’s effect on appetite and cravings. Studies have shown a direct link between cortisol levels and calorie intake. Cortisol may directly influence appetite by binding to hypothalamus receptors in the brain, as well as influence appetite by modifying other hormones and stress responses known to stimulate appetite.
Dina Aronson, MS, RD, suggests that diet is one of the essential changes that can reduce overall cortisol levels:
Implementation of targeted dietary and lifestyle approaches is an extremely powerful way to reduce stress, minimize inflammation caused by excess cortisol, and reduce the risk for illness and chronic disease. True, the many biochemical processes involving cortisol and other hormones, stress, and inflammation and their impact on health and disease risk are complex and elaborate. The therapeutic diet and lifestyle strategies, however, are not.
Some of the basics of such a diet would include the following:
- A low glycemic (sugar) load
- Elimination of trans fats and minimal intake of saturated fats
- Elimination or reduction of caffeine
- Reduction or elimination of alcohol from diet
- Boosting consumption of whole plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans) to maximize intake of fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients
- Meeting recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids (may be best measured as a ratio to omega-6 fatty acids)
- Regular exercise
- Probiotics, if warranted
While these are merely guidelines, the benefits of these choices are nearly immediate. However, therapeutic nutritional recommendations do need to be customized for each individual’s condition, preferences, and goals.
Reduce Stress To Reduce Cortisol
When cortisol levels are reduced, the body systems are more able to function properly. One simple way to control cortisol is by reducing stress in your life. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic give multiple suggestions for reducing stress and thus reducing cortisol levels:
- Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as trying yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate
- Taking time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
- Fostering healthy friendships
- Keeping a sense of humor
- Volunteering in your community
- Seeking professional counseling when needed
These options all have the benefit of helping us disconnect from the stress of our everyday lives. The less stress we have, the less cortisol we have, and the better our overall health will be.
Health is Key
When you learn how to best control your stress, you are giving your exhausted body a break from cortisol overload. By embracing activities that help you relax and disconnect, as well as implementing diet and exercise changes, you can see a marked decline in our levels of cortisol.
Bottom line: healthy stress levels lead to healthy cortisol levels and an overall improved function of all body systems.