Cortisol – How Stress Affects Your Body

Cortisol is our main stress hormone. It is one of the steroid hormones and is produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol is deeply connected to our stress response and it works like an in-built alarm system with certain parts of the brain to control fear, mood, and motivation. When our brain thinks that we are in danger or a crisis, our body’s “fight or flight” response is triggered to release cortisol and adrenaline.

Most cells in the body have cortisol receptors and as a result, cortisol affects many different functions in our body. Cortisol can:

  • Regulate metabolism
  • Control sugar levels
  • Help reduce inflammation
  • Assist with memory formulation
  • Control blood pressure
  • Control the salt and water balance

All these functions make cortisol an integral part of maintaining overall health and well being.

Why is our stress problematic?

Unfortunately, we only have only one stress response—“fight or flight,” one that evolved to keep us alive. Our stress response is meant for use during emergencies, but when we have continued stress in our lives, the “alarm button” stays on in our mind and body. In such cases, cortisol levels in our body do not come down. Our heart, blood pressure, and other functions are not able to escape our stress response and there is no time to rest and recover. Extended everyday stress in our lives can derail the normal working of our body.

Constant stress can create a number of health problems such as:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Heart disease
  • Problems with memory and concentration
  • Headaches
  • Trouble with sleeping
  • Issues with digestion
  • Weight gain

Effect of stress on other hormones:

Cortisol is our body’s life-saving hormone. It takes priority over all other hormones. It can create an imbalance in our hormonal system:

Thyroid – prolonged stress can affect our thyroid function. Thyroid hormones ensure that our body cells have enough energy to function properly. With continued stress, we can suffer symptoms of sluggishness such as fatigue, memory loss, constipation, hair loss, low mood, low libido, brain fog, and constipation.

Insulin – increased cortisol levels metabolises sugar quickly for increased energy during the “fight or flight response.” With increased blood sugar levels, more insulin is produced. This can result in insulin resistance and weight gain over time.

Oestrogen/ progesterone – to balance out the effects of oestrogen, a good level of progesterone is needed. Cortisol and progesterone are produced from the same mother hormone—pregnenolone. When the body needs cortisol, the production of progesterone is halted, resulting in a higher concentration of oestrogen in the body. This can result in PMS, increased risk of fibroids and breast or ovarian cancer, endometriosis, painful periods, tenderness in breasts, and bloating.

Effect of stress on other body functions:

Immune system – cortisol can disturb the inflammatory response of the body, which plays a major role in controlling infections.

Digestion – an excess of cortisol can affect the intestinal lining and gut flora, reducing protection against harmful microbes.

Brain function – stress can affect focus, concentration, creativity, and increase memory loss and cause brain fog.

How can you control or lower cortisol?

The following things can be done to moderate cortisol levels:

Reduce stress – you can try identifying your triggers of stress and reducing them by learning to manage them proactively to reduce anxiety or by removing yourself from such situations.

Counteract your fight or flight response – engage your “rest and relax” response or parasympathetic nervous system by switching off or unwinding with meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga, and being in nature.

Sleep – bad quality of sleep or sleep deprivation can lead to increased cortisol levels. Adhering to your natural sleep cycle and adequate sleep with minimal disruptions can help restore the cortisol balance.

Eat a good diet – a balanced diet with a controlled sugar intake can reduce cortisol levels.

Exerciseexercise can improve your mood and help beat stress. It accustoms your body to a “controlled stress” which helps reduce stress in the long-term.

Laugh and engage in activities you enjoy – cortisol levels are shown to decrease with laughter. Being happy and having a positive outlook also reduce blood pressure and stress.

Take supplements – supplements such as fish oil, vitamin B5 and B6, and herbal adaptogens like ashwagandha have shown the ability to reduce cortisol levels.

Having too much cortisol in the bloodstream can be harmful to your health, especially if cortisol levels remain high over extended periods. Reducing stress and supplementing it with good quality sleep, diet, and exercise are effective ways to reduce cortisol levels.

Blood tests can be done to measure cortisol levels in your blood and treatment plans can be made to restore their balance. If you think you suffer from stress and want more information, book an appointment with our expert doctors at the Department of Diabetology and Endocrinology at Sagar Hospitals. Contact us for a discovery call to see how best we can help you.

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