How the Stress Hormone Can Affect Your Health

It’s often called the “stress hormone” and with due cause.

Cortisol is a life-sustaining glucocorticoid (steroid hormone) that is essential to homeostasis, a process that maintains the stability of the human body’s internal environment during changes in external conditions. It’s produced in response to stress and when the body’s blood glucose is at low levels and is released by the body in situations that are interpreted as being potentially dangerous.

Here’s how it works: when our senses perceive some type of threat – either physical or emotional – cells in the nervous and endocrine systems work closely together to prepare our bodies for action. As part of this response, cortisol produced by the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney is secreted into the bloodstream to help us deal with the stressor by making energy more readily available to the muscles and shutting down unnecessary functions, thus allowing the body to direct its energies toward dealing with the task at hand. Once the situation is resolved, the hormone levels return to normal.

Normal cortisol production coincides with humans’ circadian rhythm, the physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle. Thus cortisol levels rise in the morning, helping us feel bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready for our days, then fall gradually throughout the day, reaching their lowest levels around 3 or 4 a.m.

Ideally, cortisol levels should be neither consistently high nor low, but rather fluctuate in a fairly rhythmic and balanced manner.

So why has cortisol been identified as a culprit in wreaking havoc on our health? In a nutshell, with increasingly stressful, fast-paced, wired 24-7 lifestyles, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly. If there is no physical release once the body has been put on red alert and cortisol is coursing through our veins, the levels build up in the blood, potentially leading to a host of ills:

Excessive production of glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels and an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes.

Obesity, since high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression caused by the release of cortisol can lead to cells that desperately need glucose. One way the body rectifies this is by sending hunger signals to the brain in order to provide the body with more glucose. This, in turn, can lead to overeating, with the excess glucose getting stored as fat.

Increased abdominal fat, which has a stronger correlation to certain health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body, including heart attacks, strokes, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL).

Reduced muscle and bone growth. Cortisol inhibits the uptake of protein as fuel into the muscle cells, leading to a reduction in lean muscle mass when cortisol levels are too high for too long. It also inhibits bone formation and decreases calcium absorption in the intestine.

Elevated blood pressure. Cortisol narrows the arteries and makes the body more sensitive to chemicals that increase heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and harder. It also serves as an antidiuretic and causes the body to retain water and sodium. This is helpful in the short term when the body needs to perform a physical task, but not on an ongoing basis.

Gastrointestinal problems. Cortisol causes an increase in gastric acid production, which can lead to reflux and other intestinal problems over time. Decreased blood flow to the GI tract can also cause serious digestive issues.

Compromised immune system function. One of cortisol’s functions is to reduce inflammation in the body, but over time these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system, making your body more vulnerable. That’s why it may seem that people you know who are constantly stressed are always getting sick.

Gone are the days of hunter-gatherers, whose very existence depended on cortisol to fuel them in dire circumstances (think saber-toothed tiger encounter). Paradoxically, the body function designed to help ensure our survival can often negatively impact our well-being in today’s challenging world.

The best approach to keeping elevated cortisol levels at bay is to take steps to reduce stress whenever possible and eat a balanced, nutritious diet that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables. Low-glycemic index foods like eggs help lower cortisol levels in the blood, while whole grain products help proteins control the production of cortisol in the body. Exercise regularly to build muscle mass and increase brain output of serotonin and dopamine – brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. Cut back or eliminate all drinks with large amounts of caffeine, as it causes a spike in cortisol levels. And get plenty of rest and relaxation. since sleep is especially important for cortisol management. When sleep-deprived, the nervous system remains in a constant state of alertness, requiring much higher levels of cortisol. Therefore, getting a good night’s sleep (eight hours) will naturally reduce the cortisol in the body while simultaneously replenishing and restoring the muscles, organs and tissues.