Stress And Cortisol Levels, Part 1
The Better Life Experts | February 10, 2009

Stress and Cortisol levels
Cortisol is a hormone made by the adrenal glands. It is synthesized from cholesterol and the cortisol levels in our bloodstream rise when the pituitary gland releases another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

Stress And Cortisol Levels, Part 1

Cortisol has many functions. It helps the body use sugar (glucose) and fat for energy (metabolism), and it helps the body manage stress. Cortisol levels can be affected by many conditions, such as physical or emotional stress, strenuous activity, infection, or injury. Normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and drop to their lowest in the evening and during the early phase of sleep. High cortisol levels
  • A high level of cortisol in the blood can indicate the presence of Cushing's syndrome, a disorder that can be caused by overactive adrenal glands, a pituitary or adrenal gland tumor, some types of cancer, or long-term use of corticosteroids.
  • A high blood cortisol level can be caused by severe liver or kidney disease, depression, hyperthyroidism, or obesity.
  • Pregnancy or birth control pills can also cause a high blood cortisol level.
  • Conditions such as recent surgery, illness, injury, or whole-body infection (sepsis) can also cause high cortisol levels.
Low cortisol levels
  • A low level of cortisol in the blood can be indicative of Addison's disease, which is caused by damage to the adrenal glands. If the pituitary gland is not working well, it can cause low levels of the hormone ACTH, which in turn causes low levels of cortisol. Conditions that can damage the adrenal glands or pituitary gland include some infections, head injury, and some autoimmune diseases.
  • A low level of cortisol can also be caused by internal bleeding that leads to shock.
Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. If we had to run from a predator, for example, our healthy adrenal glands respond by releasing adrenaline, which makes us more alert and focused, and cortisol, which converts protein to energy and releases our stored sugar, glycogen, so our bodies have the fuel needed to respond quickly. Stress-related changes can be essential to our survival under certain conditions.

Some positive effects of even small increases of cortisol
  • A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
  • Heightened memory functions
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Lower sensitivity to pain
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body
While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s also important that the body’s relaxation response be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. When the threat is gone, the body returns to normal — quickly with respect to adrenaline levels, less quickly with respect to cortisol. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronically high levels of cortisol and an ongoing state of stress.

Some negative effects of prolonged, high levels of cortisol
Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:

  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
  • Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat include heart attacks, strokes, the development of higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems!
  • Studies done by Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, showed that lots of stress or exposure to cortisol accelerates the degeneration of the aging hippocampus. And, because the hippocampus is part of the feedback mechanism that signals when to stop cortisol production, a damaged hippocampus causes cortisol levels to get out of control – further compromising memory and cognitive function. The cycle of degeneration then continues.
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