One of the main stress hormones is cortisol and it can have a huge impact on your health. 75% of North American adults report that they have physical or emotional symptoms of stress. It is a significant factor in chronic health issues like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, mood disorders, and dementia.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, meaning it is made from cholesterol similar to other steroid hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. It is made in the adrenal gland, which is the main gland that helps us cope with stress and it is extremely beneficial for short duration stress reactions but can cause havoc on our body when secreted in large amounts over long periods of time.
Chronic stress can be sneaky and not super obvious or it can be very distressful. See if any of these apply to you:
- Time stress – you worry about how much you have to do in a certain period of time on a regular basis, either due to work, school, or family obligations, traffic or anything that impacts your schedule makes you crazy
- Anticipatory stress – you worry about things that could happen in the future, this could be related to specific events or to a general feeling of unease about the future
- Situational stress – this can include things such as writing exams, losing your job, getting a divorce, or having a conflict with someone
- Physical stress – includes things like having an illness, chronic pain, injuries, or you physically over-exert yourself with extreme exercise
Breaks down fat and glycogen to increase blood sugar in the morning before we eat (which is why it is best to fast in the morning) and during acute stress
Leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
Increases blood pressure, beneficial in the morning and for an acute stress response
Can cause high blood pressure (hypertension) this is why stress is a major risk factor for heart disease
Reroutes blood flow from extremities and the digestive system to vital organs like the heart, lungs and skeletal muscles during an acute stress response
Chronic lack of blood flow to the digestive system results in poor nutrient absorption. Blood flow to the skin decreases and therefore the skin is not getting nutrients for regeneration and this increases signs of aging such as wrinkles, and thin, dry, sagging skin.
Inhibits the immune response – in normal amounts this is beneficial for preventing excess immune activity and inflammation
Immunosuppression leaves you vulnerable to increased infections. Have you noticed that you tend to get more colds and flu during stressful time periods?
Cortisol inhibits the cells of the immune system that modulate inflammation
Excess cortisol increases chronic inflammation and can make inflammatory conditions worse, such as osteoarthritis and autoimmune diseases. Excess stress also makes healing from injuries take longer.
Increases memory – we tend to remember stressful events because it is beneficial to avoid or know how to deal with similar future situations
Extreme stress can reduce memory as a defense mechanism. Cortisol also inhibits the logical thinking part of our brain called the frontal lobe during stress because our brain tends to use the more primitive survival reflexes of the limbic system – so chronic stress inhibits your ability to problem-solve and learn new information and can make us a little irrational
Breaks down bone to release minerals needed for an acute stress response, and will break down muscle to release amino acids that can be used to make energy
Leads to osteoporosis, muscle wasting and weakness, loss of fat in limbs but increased abdominal fat. If you are trying to build muscle, chronic stress will greatly reduce how quickly you can recover from workouts and build muscle.
Cortisol increases feelings of anxiety, which is beneficial in an acute stress response because it motivates you to deal with the situation
Causes chronic feelings of anxiety and can contribute to insomnia. Also increases irritability, and mood swings.
Cortisol reduces serotonin. Serotonin makes us feel calm and content.
Long duration stress inhibits serotonin and this can lead to depression.
Cortisol inhibits oxytocin – this is the hormone that makes us love and bond with people (and pets), which can be beneficial during a short stress response
Chronic stress inhibits our desire to be around people. It is a bit of a weird thing because being with loved ones helps us reduce cortisol but excess cortisol tends to make us isolate ourselves; this is a major factor involved with depression.
Cortisol inhibits our appetite when released in normal amounts because it causes fat breakdown that increases blood sugar, why a lot of people are not hungry in the morning.
Excess cortisol makes your body want more energy for future stress so it increases your appetite and causes cravings, often for sugar or starchy carbs because they are high in energy. Chronic stress is highly correlated with weight gain.
Cortisol reduces hormones related to development of eggs and ovulation during acute stress.
Women that have higher stress levels and increased cortisol levels during pre-menopause have more dysregulation of DHEA (testosterone-like hormone made by the adrenal glands in males and females), FSH, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (adrenalin) and will have more symptoms associated with menopause such as mood swings, hot flashes, and insomnia.
How can we reduce our stress levels so we aren’t pumping our body full of cortisol all the time? What is your favorite way to deal with stress?