Over the last decade or so, familiarity with cortisol has risen exponentially among the general public. Cortisol is now a hormone that is commonly used and recognized, almost as much as other hormones like insulin and testosterone. Despite the wide acceptance of cortisol in today's society, not many people can claim a great wealth of knowledge about how it is produced and what affects it can have on our health. While you may recognize cortisol as a "stress hormone" that bears a somewhat negative connotation, the effects of cortisol — both positive and negative — are numerous. If you have ever wondered what kind of impact stress can have on you — emotionally and physically — it may be time to learn more about how your body produces this hormone and how it acts upon your overall health.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress and low levels of blood glucose. Its release into the body is regulated by the hypothalamus, an area of the brain which is one of the primary controllers of the metabolism. When it enters the blood in response to stress, its intention is to make energy more readily available to the muscles. Some of its primary functions are to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system in order to prevent inflammation, and aid in the metabolization on fat, protein and carbohydrates.
So why has cortisol inherited such a bad reputation? Let's look at the process of cortisol production: When our bodies experience stress, cortisol is released so that more energy is available. When the stress ends, cortisol production ceases and our bodies return to their normal, balanced states. Sounds fairly straightforward and natural, right? Problems with cortisol production occur when we continue to experience copious amounts of stress. It is commonly known and accepted that the body produces cortisol in response to stress, and it is no mystery that stress is not generally viewed as a component of optimal health.
When stress becomes chronic, which is fairly common for most of us nowadays, the overexposure to high levels of cortisol create a plethora of problems. According to Matt Fitzgerald, author of Iron War, long term negative effects on our health can occur, including but not limited to:
- Abdominal fat gain
- Cognitive decline
- Compromised immune function
Other side effects of long-term exposure to cortisol can also include: (via Today's Dietician)
- Excessive production of glucose, which elevates blood sugar levels and increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
- Gastrointestinal problems, because a cortisol-flooded, stressed body often cannot cope with digestion and absorption properly.
- Obesity, since high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression can lead to cells that desperately need glucose. One way to regulate this is to send hunger signals to the brain, in order to provide the body with more glucose. This can lead to overeating, and then the excess glucose gets stored as fat.
- Cardiovascular disease, because high levels of cortisol lead to arterial constriction and high blood pressure. These symptoms can contribute to vessel damage and plaque buildup, which could cause a heart attack.
- Problems with fertility, since high levels of stress can negatively impact a woman's normal ovulation and menstrual cycles.
So yeah, cortisol might not look so bad to you now, but it is important to keep in mind that too much of a good thing is often bad for you! The key is to keep your stress levels at a minimum so your body doesn't overproduce the hormone. If you can manage your stress, eat an anti-inflammatory diet and exercise regularly, you really have nothing to worry about! For more information on what affects cortisol can have on your health, and how to manage those effects, check out our sources: Today's Dietician, Competitor.com, About.com: Health