The negative effects of cortisol are behind a multitude of health related problems brought on by chronic stress and the body's response to it.
Although high cortisol levels aren't entirely responsible for all the ill effects of living in modern day perpetual crisis mode, they do play a major role in the relationship between stress and health.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is often referred to as the stress hormone, and for good reason. In the face of real or perceived danger, the adrenals send a rush of adrenaline followed by a huge dose of cortisol.
Even though this stress hormone is produced and released by the adrenal glands, it is primarily controlled by the pituitary gland.
Under normal conditions cortisol is present in the body in varying amounts. Levels are generally highest in the morning and lowest a few hours after going to sleep.
The negative effects of cortisol due to chronic stress have given this hormone a bad reputation. This is unfortunate because it has many important, helpful functions in the body when it is released at normal levels.
This is a great example of the cloud having a silver lining.
Have you ever noticed that you may only feel little if any pain during or shortly after an accident or fight, while you are still stressed? This is in part due to the positive effects of cortisol. Then when you relax, the pain intensifies as stress hormone levels normalize. DHEA hormone initiates repair and the inflammatory process begins.
Short occasional bursts of high cortisol levels are expected and easily handled by the body as part of the stress response. It only becomes damaging when levels stay elevated due to malfunction or chronic stress. This is common in today's world as we deal with the constant stress of financial worries, environmental toxins, obesity, relationship troubles and more.
One of the functions of cortisol is to reduce inflammation, an initial part of the healing process. Inhibiting this process allows body tissues to continue receiving their full blood supply. This, and the other effects of cortisol, only become a problem when prolonged stress requires the body to sacrifice its balance and maintain high cortisol levels.
Healing is not a priority when in flight-fright. As part of your stress response, the body reduces inflammation by suppressing the immune system. Even a twenty minute episode of stress has been shown to reduce natural killer cell activity, our primary defense system, for up to three days.
Blood pressure rises as vessels constrict and blood sugar levels increase as insulin is blocked from doing its job. You crave carbohydrates and unhealthy fat builds up in the abdomen. Gastric acid production increases in the stomach. Bone formation, libido, and cognitive function is hindered. Eventually, the adrenal glands can become exhausted and 'burnout'.
As a result of repeated and prolonged dis-stress, the long term detrimental effects of cortisol become apparent. According to research at Carnegie Mellon University, your body loses its ability to regulate its inflammatory responses as immune cells become less sensitive to regulating hormonal signals. This creates health damaging chronic inflammation in your body.
Cells throughout your body fall victim to prolonged high cortisol levels. Telomeres, the 'end caps' that protect your cells as they reproduce, shorten. The shorter your end caps, the faster your cells and immune system age and become susceptible to damage.
Long-term exposure to stress hormones damages and reduces the number of cells in the hippocampus, the brain's primary memory center. This damage results in memory loss and impaired learning.
Another major negative effect of cortisol is that it inhibits collagen formation. Collagen is a molecule that makes connective tissue. It's vital for structural support and is found in muscles, tendons and joints, as well as throughout the entire body.
Stress studies done on rats show that collagen loss in the skin was ten times greater than in any other tissue. Remember that during stress the body prioritizes what is important for fight or flight. Wrinkle-free, young looking skin is not one of those priorities.
Adrenaline and cortisol work together during stressful times to create memories of emotional events. You've probably experienced an event that felt so emotionally charged that it seems forever burned into your memory as if it just happened. This is called a flash bulb memory and probably serves as a protective device - a powerful reminder of what you want to avoid.
The effects of cortisol extend beyond its direct impact on the body. Another problem with continually maintaining high cortisol levels has to do with another vital hormone produced by the adrenal glands.
When the adrenal glands release stress hormones, they are not releasing the DHEA hormone responsible for cell repair. The adrenals are either making one of these hormones or the other at any given moment.
When DHEA hormone levels are low, the body does not have the biological resources to repair itself. The body can't function properly and is more vulnerable to disease. DHEA also protects us from stress and the effects of cortisol. It slows aging, strengthens the immune system and improves mood.
If you are concerned about being healthy, you need to create conditions that favor the production of the DHEA hormone.
It takes about thirty minutes after a stressful event for the body to break down cortisol molecules. They are reassembled into the necessary building blocks for DHEA. If you keep thinking stressful thoughts, these thoughts trigger the stress response, not an opportunity for healing and repair.
A little stress now and again is not a bad thing. It provides an energy boost to help you achieve your goals. It is chronic dis-stress that has short and long-term health consequences that permanently compromise your health and cause you to age faster.
Do not kid yourself into thinking you can compartmentalize your stress and keep it in your head. The brain communicates to the body with lightning speed,and the entire body gets the message to activate the stress response.
Understanding how the stress response works, and how you can reduce the harmful effects of cortisol and stress, will help you enjoy a healthier life.
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