When it come to the health effects of cortisol, this hormone often gets a bad rap. It is rightly associated with a multitude of health related problems brought on by chronic stress and the body's response to it. But that is only half the story. How much cortisol is circulating in your system at a given time, and how often, determines whether it is helping or harming your health oveall.
Under normal conditions cortisol is always present in the body in varying amounts. Levels are generally highest in the morning and lowest a few hours after going to sleep.
When a threat, or distress trigger is perceived, the adrenal glands are signaled by the pituitary gland to elevate levels for fright or fight. This is why cortisol is often called the stress hormone. When this happens too often, as is now common given our modern lifestyles, cortisol becomes a major contributor to weight gain and an array of health problems.
Cortisol has many important, helpful functions in the body when its normal rhythms can be maintained as nature intended. It helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin levels. It aids fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism.
When you get stressed, cortisol levels spike to give you the energy and strength you need to fight or flee. It's a survival mechanism.
Have you ever noticed that you feel little if any pain during or shortly after an accident or fight? This is in part due to the positive effects of cortisol. It suppresses inflammation 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 financial worries, environmental toxins, obesity, relationship troubles and more.
High cortisol levels are about survival from a predator or other danger. All physical and mental functions not necessary for getting you through the crisis are suppressed. Functions that enhance your chances of survival are heightened.
Cortisol is not entirely responsible for the ill effects of living in modern day perpetual crisis mode, but it does play a major role in the relationship between stress and health.
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. 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.
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.
Long term detrimental effects of cortisol become apparent as a result of repeated and prolonged dis-stress.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inflammation along with higher blood sugar and insulin levels caused by elevated cortisol is a contributor to weight gain and excess belly fat.
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.