Whenever our body perceives stress, it releases a hormone known as cortisol which causes an increase in the heart rate and blood pressure among other functions. The hormone is produced by the adrenal glands and is often known as the stress hormone. Having the right cortisol balance is very important for human health.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. When released into the bloodstream, cortisol can act on many different parts of the body and can help:
- body respond to stress or danger
- increase body’s metabolism of glucose
- control blood pressure
- reduce inflammation
Cortisol is also needed for the fight or flight response, which is a healthy, natural response to perceived threats. The amount of cortisol produced is highly regulated by your body to ensure the balance is correct.
How Does It Work?
During stressful conditions, the trigger to induce or inhibit cortisol production in the adrenal glands comes from the hypothalamus and pituitary glands which are located in the brain. Once the cortisol hormone is released into the bloodstream the hormone triggers a flood of glucose that supplies an immediate energy source to your large muscles. It also inhibits insulin production so the glucose won’t be stored but will be available for immediate use.
Cortisol narrows the arteries, while another hormone, epinephrine, increases your heart rate. Working together, they force your blood to pump harder and faster as you confront and resolve the immediate threat.
What happens if body remains in chronic stress?
If your entire life is high-stress and always in high gear, your body may constantly pump out cortisol. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including:
When cortisol levels increase, the cells of our body can become resistant to insulin. In turn, this may lead to an increase in blood sugar, weight gain and potentially Type 2 Diabetes.
Very often, fatigue can be seen in people who have too much cortisol as well as those who have less than normal amounts of the hormone. Importantly, other hormonal problems, such as thyroid or pituitary problems, could lead to fatigue.
During stressful conditions, cortisol released from the adrenal glands causes constriction of blood vessels and leads to hypertension as a part of body’s fight or flight response.
Sustained or chronic stress leads to elevated cortisol, and reduced serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain which causes depression.
Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite.
Prolonged stress leads to excess levels of cortisol. This alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate both the inflammatory and immune response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to cortisol and therefore leads to inflammation of joints leading to arthritis.
When your cortisol levels are high over a long period of time, your adrenal glands start to get depleted. This raises prolactin levels, increasing the body's sensitivity to pain such as backaches and muscle aches. Excessive cortisol has also been shown spur migraines.
Stress increases cortisol levels, which is linked to high pressures in the eye. Increased eye pressure worsens glaucoma, a disease that can damage the optic nerve and even cause blindness.
Stress normally causes a surge in adrenal hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that increase alertness, making it more difficult to relax into sound sleep – especially when they remain high or rise and fall irregularly through the night.
Acid reflux disease
Higher cortisol levels lead to increased stomach acid production, to maximize digestive efficiency, and also reduces melatonin production. Melatonin also helps strengthen your lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle between your esophagus and stomach that inhibits stomach acid moving up into your throat.
How to balance Cortisol levels naturally?
Balancing cortisol levels naturally is an important way to fight stress. Some of them include:
- Having a regular sleep wake cycle. Going to bed and waking up at the same time creates a good circadian rhythm which optimizes cortisol levels.
- Limiting alcohol intake.
- Regular exercising and meditation keep a check on cortisol levels and relaxes the body.
- Consider taking natural health supplements containing herbs like St. John’s wort, Lemon balm, L-theanine which help reducing stress levels naturally.
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- The role of cortisol in the body. (2018). Retrieved July 12, 2020, from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/the-role-of-cortisol-in-the-body
- Dedovic K, Duchesne A, Andrews J, Engert V, Pruessner JC. The brain and the stress axis: the neural correlates of cortisol regulation in response to stress. Neuroimage. 2009;47(3):864-871. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.074