The cortisol hormone is a key player in your body’s timeless fight or flight stress response and vital for supplying energy – fast! Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose, fats and amino acids into the bloodstream to meet those demands.
But… too much of it for too long is a recipe for disaster!
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the following functions and more:
- Proper glucose metabolism
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintanence
- Immune function
- Inflammatory response
Ironically named the master “stress” hormone, cortisol regulates the way your body uses various fuel sources and is essential for recouping energy following stress.
Normal cortisol hormone levels tend to follow a 24-hour circadian rhythm. The lowest level being at night during sleep that gradually increase to when you need to wake up and get moving. The high cortisol levels present in early morning rapidly drop off and then continue to decline for the remainder of the day.
Cortisol and Stress
Unfortunately, a “normal” day for most people is a far cry from what you would call “ideal”. In the real world, your day is more likely than not, to include a fair amount of distress… sometimes a LOT!
Factors such as emotional and physical stressors, exercise, lack of sleep, illness, injury, hunger, dieting, anxiety and depression, estrogen hormone therapy, or pregnancy can raise your cortisol hormone levels—so can mild stimulants such as caffeine.
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.
Cortisol and DHEA Hormone
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.
What happens if I have too much cortisol?
High cortisol levels over a prolonged time can cause lack of sex drive and, in women, periods can become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether (amenorrhoea).
In addition there has been a long-standing association between raised or impaired regulation of cortisol levels and a number of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, the significance of this is not yet clearly understood.
Other symptoms that stress-cortisol hormone levels may be too high:
- Increased appetite and food cravings
- Rapid weight gain
- Increased body fat
- Decreased muscle mass
- Decreased bone density
- Mood swings – irritability and anger
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Reduced sex drive
- Impaired immune system
- Learning and memory impairment
- Increased PMS and menopausal symptoms
- Irregular menstrual periods
What happens if I have too little cortisol?
Too little cortisol can be due to a condition called Addison’s disease. It has a number of causes, all rare, including damage to the adrenal glands by auto-immune disease. The onset of symptoms is often very gradual. Symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness (especially upon standing), weight loss, muscle weakness, mood changes and the darkening of regions of the skin.
A little stress now and again provides an energy boost to help you achieve your goals. Chronic stress has short and long-term health consequences that can permanently compromise your health and cause you to age faster.
For additional information on hormones check out these additional pages: