Cortisol: 7 ways the ‘stress hormone’ keeps you healthy
Cortisol plays various essential roles in keeping bodily functions healthy, however, too much or too little can be harmful.
Cortisol is a hormone your adrenal glands release when you experience stressful situations. That is the reason behind the popular moniker ‘stress hormone.’
The adrenal glands responsible for producing and releasing the hormones are small and triangular. These small organs are perched above each of the kidneys.
The adrenal glands work with the brain to regulate fear, energy, and overall mood when you are dealing with a stressful situation.
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol plays an important role in tandem with the body’s ‘fight or flight’ system to aid in dealing with stressful circumstances.
However, the stress hormone plays plenty of other important roles in your overall wellbeing. These include:
- Reducing inflammation
Small, regulated amounts of the stress hormone can support your immunity by suppressing inflammation.
- Normalizing your blood pressure
How exactly the hormone does it is still not fully understood, but with high levels of cortisol, blood pressure becomes high and low levels reduce blood pressure.
- Increasing your blood sugar
Cortisol tends to trigger the liver to release sugar in the form of glucose for an instant burst of energy. In turn, it raises your overall blood sugar level.
- Aiding in sleep/wake cycle regulation
Ideally, the human body has low cortisol levels during the evening hours towards bedtime. In the mornings, closest to the time you wake up, cortisol levels are at the optimal highest. This indicates that the hormone plays an important part in triggering you to wake up and also has a role in the body’s circadian rhythm.
- Helping manage metabolism
Cortisol helps manage and control how your body utilizes carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
- Boosting energy
Cortisol provides the body with a temporary burst of boosted energy during episodes of stress to restore normal energy levels afterwards.
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While it is vital for several functions of the body and your overall health, if your cortisol levels become too high or too low, it can actually cause you harm. Because of this, the body monitors and maintains ideal levels via a process called homeostasis.
What happens if your cortisol level becomes too high?
Once you have finished dealing with the situation causing you stress, the cortisol level in your body should automatically drop.
Your blood pressure, heart functions, and other functional aspects of your body should return to normal.
However, what if the triggering situation is never resolved? Or perhaps your adrenal glands continue to produce and release excess cortisol for other reasons.
Too much of the stress hormone can have seriously adverse effects on your health. The health problems caused by excess levels include:
- Anxiety and depression
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain (particularly around your stomach, upper back, and your face)
- Slower healing and getting bruised more easily
- Weakness in the muscles (especially in the upper arms and thighs)
- Weakness in the bones and getting fractures easily
- High blood sugar (eventually leading to Type 2 diabetes)
- Problems remembering and concentrating
- Severe exhaustion
- Difficulty sleeping
- Digestion problems
When you have unusually high cortisol levels for an extended period, the condition is referred to as Cushing’s syndrome.
The reasons behind Cushing’s syndrome, as well as high cortisol levels, can include any of the following:
- Intake of certain medicines to treat other conditions, such as dexamethasone, prednisolone, or prednisone.
- Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) producing tumours can result in excess cortisol levels.
- Excessive growth of adrenal tissue (referred to as hyperplasia) or adrenal gland tumours can result in excessive production of the hormone.
Can I have thyroid problems due to stress?
In order to understand the connection between cortisol and the thyroid, it is important first to understand how the body controls cortisol levels.
The hypothalamus and pituitary gland in your brain sense whether your blood comprises the correct level of the stress hormone.
Depending on the stress hormone levels present in your body, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands send the appropriate hormones to the adrenal glands to either inhibit or increase the release of the hormone.
So, what does any of this have to do with your thyroid?
As it stands, the body’s thyroid hormones are linked to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and, in turn to the stress hormone.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Medicine, Dr Stefano Guandalini, stated: ‘When you have either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, you become more sensitive to both mental and physical stresses, as the excessively high or low levels of thyroid hormones affect how the whole body reacts to stress.’
He further stressed: ‘Stress increases production of the hormone cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands.
‘Cortisol can inhibit secretion of TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) from the pituitary gland, leading to partial suppression of thyroxine, the main hormone produced by the thyroid gland.’
In short, stress can worsen pre-existing thyroid conditions and end up causing more stress.
Continue reading – Thyroid disorders: Symptoms to watch out for