Did you know our bodies have their own built in “alarm system”? This complex system works with our brain to control the natural “fight or flight” response. Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, fuels this reaction. Cortisol plays an important role in many functions, but as we all know, too much of a good thing can be bad for us. Let’s discuss cortisol and the role it plays in stress.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on the top of each kidney. Cortisol is released when you first wake up in the morning, during exercise, or under acute stress. At normal levels, this hormone can help maintain normal blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and even support muscles in the heart. In addition, it supports a number of functions including:
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Can help keep inflammation down
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy temporarily so you can handle stress
How Cortisol Works in the Body
We’ve all felt that rush of energy when we’re pressured to meet a deadline, starting a new job, or maybe moving into a new home. When we encounter a perceived threat, the body needs to make sure our muscles have access to an immediate energy source, in the form of glucose.
Once the threat is detected, the adrenal glands make and then release a surge of hormones, including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, into the bloodstream. This combination immediately sets off the body’s alarm.
Cortisol prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response by increasing levels of glucose. In turn, cortisol inhibits insulin production to help provide our muscles with enough energy. These changes cause our arteries to narrow, and epinephrine increases our heart rate. Combined, these hormones force our blood to pump even harder and faster.
This response has kept us alive for thousands of years, so how can it become a problem?
Our ancestors needed this response in a world that required them going from resting, to “fighting or fleeting” within a rapid amount of time. Now, in a more modern world, we don’t face the same dangers. The problem is many people are in a constant state of stress from low level stressors. When multiple demands are placed on the body overtime, it can treat these hassles as threats. A few symptoms of chronic stress can include sleep issues, heart palpitations, increased weight gain, headaches, memory impairment, and more.
Under normal conditions, our body’s stress response system is regulated. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels and heart rate usually return back to baseline. With constant stressors, this heightened reaction can stay on. If the body remains in a state of stress, the pancreas can struggle to keep up with the high level of glucose in the blood, and levels can remain dangerously high. The “fight or flight” response gives our bodies a temporary increase in energy production, but this also causes the body to shut down other less-critical functions (i.e digestion, repair and growth), which can have dangerous effects. For example, we know that cortisol inhibits insulin production, starving our cells of the glucose they need. As a result, the body may send signals to the brain that you need to eat more. This signal can cause you to overeat foods and gain excess weight.
Our brain and gut are more in sync than you might think. Like all hormones, cortisol has many complex functions. Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system and suppresses the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal, revving up our fight or flight response. The parasympathetic system promotes the “rest and digest” response, calming the body down after danger has passed. You can imagine what happens to digestion in a stressful, cortisol-flooded environment. This can cause a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach – which slows digestion and absorption. As a result, indigestion can occur, and the gut lining can become inflamed. This inflammation leads to another increase in cortisol production, and the cycle begins again.
As we discussed earlier, the combination of cortisol and epinephrine constricts our blood vessels and increases blood pressure. If arteries stay constricted overtime, blood vessel damage and plaque buildup can occur. This increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and more.
Stressful events are a part of life. One of the best ways we can nourish ourselves is to catch it early. The great news is that there are daily steps we can take to keep cortisol levels at bay and prioritize stress management. Some techniques such as getting better quality sleep, regular exercise, relaxation/breath work, proper supplementation, and a balanced diet can help us become more prepared to manage stressful situations. Minimizing stress factors is one of the best ways to combat heightened cortisol levels and cater to mental wellbeing.
Chang, Louise. “Cortisol: What It Does & How To Regulate Cortisol Levels.” WebMD. WebMD, 22 Dec. 2018. Web. 19 July 2020.
“Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 19 Mar. 2019. Web. 19 July 2020.
“Cortisol: The Good News, Bad News, and the Downright Ugly Truth behind This Stress Hormone.” University of Utah Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2020.
Nelson, Eric. “The Evolution of the Stress Response.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2020.