If you’ve heard about cortisol, most likely it was in relation to stress. Women know that chronic stress isn’t good for them, and that it’s linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and even cancer.
You may have also heard that when you feel stress, the body releases adrenaline and the hormone “cortisol.” But what exactly is cortisol, and what does it have to do with your overall health?
What is Cortisol, and What is it For?
To understand cortisol, it helps to understand what is called the “stress system.” This is the “fight or flight” system that kicks in when you need to get away from a dangerous situation.
Let’s say you’re walking along on the prairie, enjoying the afternoon sun, and suddenly you come upon a lion. (Okay, so you’re walking in Africa. Just go with me here.) A small part of the back of your brain, called the “hypothalamus,” sets off the alarm: danger, danger! The adrenal glands, which are located on top of your kidneys, respond, releasing a number of different hormones.
These hormones have a job to do, and that’s to get you away from the danger as quickly as possible. The two major players are:
- Adrenaline: Adrenaline gives you a surge of energy. You need to run, and now! This hormone increases your heart rate, elevates blood pressure, dilates your pupils, and charges up your muscles so you can do what you need to do to escape or survive.
- Cortisol: Cortisol is a little more complex. In general, it affects a lot of body systems, controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, and assisting in memory formation. It also helps control blood pressure and balances salt and water levels. During acute stress, such as when you’re facing that lion, it may shut down some systems that could get in the way of your escape, like your digestive system or your immune system. But then its main role is to manage that stress you just went through, decrease inflammation, and help the body as a whole to cope with what it just experienced.
Under normal conditions, your body releases these hormones, you get away from the lion, and once you’re safe, the levels of these hormones drop down again. All is well.
In today’s world, though, we rarely encounter lions. Instead, we’re often faced with smaller stressors, sometimes many throughout the day, each of which tends to activate the fight-or-flight system, even if just a little bit.
Imagine one woman’s busy day. She gets up a few minutes late, so she feels stress, because now she’s behind. She has to get her family up, fed, and out the door, and when one of her children looks like he’ll be late to school, her body revs up the stress hormones to help her manage the situation. Once the child is safely in his classroom, those levels start to go down, but then she gets an email from her boss wondering where her report is on her latest project. It was due yesterday.
Again, her stress goes up. She forgot about the deadline! She rushes to work, but gets caught in a traffic jam. More stress hormones, but she can’t do anything to release them. There’s no running allowed on the highway, so she sits and stews. She looks in the mirror and realizes in her rush that she forgot to put on her makeup. More stress hormones.
As you can see, this sort of lifestyle could result in little “stress hits” occurring throughout the day, and each time, the body releases cortisol in the system. Yet there is no release–no running away, no way to respond but mentally, so the cortisol tends to stay in the bloodstream, and that’s not good.
The Problem with Too Much Cortisol
Women who are either a) exposed to repeated stressors throughout the day without releasing them, or b) experience constant stress from issues like financial strain, health problems, and caregiving challenges, may experience chronic stress. This can result in continuously high levels of cortisol in the system.
Research has shown us that this is dangerous for overall health. The Mayo Clinic has linked it to an increased risk of not only anxiety and depression, but physical issues like headaches, sleep problems, weight gain, digestive issues, and heart disease.
Excess cortisol can weaken the immune system and cause inflammation to rise, leaving you at risk for:
- cardiovascular disease
- autoimmune diseases,
- pain conditions like fibroymyalgia, low back pain, sciatica, and chronic fatigue syndrome
Chronic stress can also cause your cortisol to stop working as it should. The system becomes overtaxed, and starts to break down. The body may no longer be able to release as much cortisol as it needs, or may not be able to produce enough of it in the first place. Cells may grow resistant to cortisol, or hypersensitive to it.
Several studies, for example, have found that when subjects were exposed to repeated stress, their cortisol eventually failed to function correctly. Since cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory–one of its main functions is to reduce inflammation–when it fails to work, the inflammatory response can run wild, potentially leading to other issues like free radical damage, cellular death, premature aging, and more.
How Can I Tell if I’m Chronically Stressed?
You probably already know if your life is stressful, but there are certain things you can watch for that could indicate your cortisol is struggling.
- Chronic pain–fibromyalgia, low back pain, muscle pain, joint pain
- Chronic fatigue–you’re always tired even if you get a good night’s sleep
- Memory problems
- Osteopenia (bone loss) or osteoarthritis
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Weight gain, particularly around the abdomen/stomach area
- Higher susceptibility to infections (cold, flu, etc.)
It’s also important to be aware of two potential diseases related to cortisol levels:
- Addison’s Disease: Also called “primary adrenal insufficiency,” Addison disease is a rare autoimmune disease that damages the adrenal glands, after which they can no longer produce as much cortisol as they should. Symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, muscle loss, mood swings, and darkening of the skin.
- Cushing’s Disease: Tumors on the adrenal glands can cause this rare disease, in which there is too much cortisol in the blood. Symptoms may include rapid weight gain in the face, abdomen, and chest; flushing; high blood pressure; mood swings; and osteoporosis. “Cushing’s syndrome” is a different condition, and refers to high levels of cortisol in the blood not caused by a tumor. Certain types of cancer or certain medications, including hydrocortisone, prednisone pills, joint steroid injections, and asthma inhalers, may be to blame, instead.
If you suspect you may have symptoms from either of these diseases, ask your doctor to have your cortisol levels tested.
How to Keep Your Cortisol Levels Under Control
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to keep your cortisol levels under control.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day–it helps your body shed that stress!
- Practice a stress-relieving activity like meditation, yoga, journaling, or pet therapy every day.
- Regularly connect with friends and loved ones.
- Laugh more often.
- Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables.
- Listen to uplifting music.
- Control caffeine intake, particularly if you notice that you’re sensitive to it.
Berglund,Â C. (2013, January 22). Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone? Is Public Enemy No. 1. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1
Cohen,Â S., Janicki-Deverts,Â D., Doyle,Â W.Â J., Miller,Â G.Â E., Frank,Â E., Rabin,Â B.Â S., & Turner,Â R.Â B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(16), 5995-5999. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/109/16/5995
The Endocrine Society. (n.d.). Cortisol | Hormone Health Network. Retrieved from https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/cortisol
Hannibal,Â K.Â E., & Bishop,Â M.Â D. (2014). Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation. Physical Therapy, 94(12), 1816-1825. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016, April 21). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
UCLA Pituitary Tumor Program. (n.d.). Cushing’s Disease | UCLA Pituitary Tumor Program. Retrieved from http://pituitary.ucla.edu/cushings-disease