If you’ve ever heard someone talk about the hormone cortisol, it was probably in a negative context. Often referred to as a “stress hormone,” cortisol is one of the most misunderstood hormones in the human body. However, this compound often gets portrayed as an enemy to human health when it’s actually a vital hormone.
Cortisol isn’t the Enemy
It’s true that elevated cortisol can cause some pretty serious issues. But, your goal shouldn’t be to eradicate cortisol altogether. If you’re confused about cortisol and how to maintain healthy levels, keep reading. This article provides a basic outline of cortisol, the role it plays in our endocrine system, and how to be alerted to a potential cortisol imbalance.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by cholesterol. It functions as a sort of alarm system for your body. During times of stress, your adrenal glands (two organs located on top of each of the kidneys) will produce cortisol to help your body respond to a perceived threat. This is sometimes referred to as a “fight-or-flight” response.
Source: BMB Reports
What Does Cortisol Do?
In addition to being involved in the body’s fight-or-flight response, cortisol plays an important role in many other bodily functions, including the following:
- The body’s metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates
- Managing inflammation
- Regulating blood pressure
- Regulating blood glucose (blood sugar)
- Controlling the body’s sleep/wakefulness cycle
- Boosting energy to help you manage stressful situations
Source: Hormone Health Network
How is Cortisol Produced?
When you experience a stressful event (you get cut off in traffic, you receive bad news over the phone, etc.) the following processes occur in the body:
- The hypothalamus sends a signal to the adrenal glands
- The adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol
- Adrenaline increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and the body’s overall energy supply
- Cortisol increases blood glucose and increases the brain’s utilization of that glucose
- Cortisol also slows down the body’s non-essential functions (such as digestion, reproduction, growth, etc.) so that all energy can go toward fighting off the perceived threat
Once the perceived threat has gone away, your stress response should stop and your cortisol levels will return to normal. However, in some cases, people’s cortisol levels remain elevated.
Effect of Too Much or Too Little Cortisol
It’s important to have balanced cortisol levels. Too much or too little can create a variety of issues in the body. Being mindful of the impact of either of these imbalances can help one spot them quicker, allowing effective action to be taken faster.
Too Much Cortisol
If your cortisol levels remain elevated, you may experience the following symptoms, many of which are associated with a condition known as Cushing Syndrome:
- Rapid weight gain (primarily in the chest, face, and abdomen)
- Elevated blood pressure
- Skin that bruises easily or is prone to acne
- Muscle weakness
- Mood swings (depression, anxiety, irritability, etc.)
- Increased thirst and frequent urination
- Low libido
- Irregular menstrual periods in women
Chronically elevated cortisol can also increase your risk of developing the following conditions:
- Diabetes: Cortisol elevates blood sugar; when cortisol remains high, blood sugar remains high, too. If blood sugar remains too high for too long, you may develop type 2 diabetes.
- Suppressed immune system: Cortisol limits the body’s immune responses. If your immune system can’t respond to foreign invaders properly, your chances of getting sick will increase.
- Digestive problems: Since cortisol slows digestion, chronically elevated cortisol can easily lead to poor digestion and nutrient absorption. People with high cortisol levels often struggle with digestive issues like colitis, ulcers, or irritable bowel syndrome.
- Heart diseases: Elevated blood pressure increases your risk of experiencing a stroke or heart attack.
Sources: NIDDKD, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism
Too Little Cortisol
As you can see, there are definitely reasons to be worried about elevated cortisol. But, low cortisol is also problematic.
Too little cortisol is often associated with a condition known as Addison’s disease. Symptoms that many people experience when their cortisol levels are too low include:
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Changes in mood
- Dark patches on the skin
Reasons Cortisol Levels Become Unbalanced
Chronically elevated cortisol can be caused by chronically high levels of stress. If you have a stressful job or are putting your body through a lot of stress by under eating and over exercising, you’re more likely to develop elevated cortisol levels.
Damage can come from an autoimmune disease or a long-term infection
Tumors and certain drugs (birth control pills, corticosteroids, and amphetamines) can also lead to high cortisol. Low cortisol, on the other hand, is typically brought on by damage to the adrenal glands. This damage can come from an autoimmune disease or a long-term infection like HIV or tuberculosis.
Maintaining Healthy Cortisol Levels
Clearly, both high and low cortisol can be problematic. These tips will help you maintain a healthy amount of cortisol:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet that’s low in processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol)
- Getting plenty of sleep (use natural supplements for sleep if you struggle with insomnia)
- Spend time outdoors
- Take up relaxing hobbies like yoga, walking, or meditation
Regulating your cortisol levels isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it. The concepts and ideas mentioned in this article are meant only as useful references to help identify potential cortisol issues. If you believe these issues are relevant to your health concerns, it’s important to open a line of discussion with a licensed professional that can take into account your personal circumstances.