We may have heard of cortisol as it relates to excess weight around the abdominal, but cortisol does a lot more then affect our weight.
It's the 'get up and get moving' also known as our primary 'stress hormone' that wakes us up from our sleep and gives our mind and body that bust of energy to start our day.
So cortisol is a good thing when it exists at the right levels to keep our body functioning. It helps us deal with stress when needed and then naturally drops to lower levels in our body.
When we have a stressor to deal with, parts of the brain communicate with our adrenal glands (located just above our kidneys) to release cortisol. The adrenals release cortisol and the cortisol communicates back to the brain when the cortisol level needed has been reached so no more cortisol is produced. It's a pretty neat system and works well to control various hormones in our body.
The problem is when we have too much stress and our body constantly produces cortisol without giving the body a chance to naturally drop our cortisol levels down. The cortisol switch is stuck in an 'on' position and cortisol accumulates in our bodies. Our cortisol levels need to be managed in order for us to live healthy and active lives.
How Cortisol Works
In an ideal situation, the cortisol levels are high when we wake up in the morning to get us going and start our day. They should then start to decrease naturally with spikes in cortisol needed when we are faced with stress - but this rise in cortisol should then decline once the stress is over. By bedtime, cortisol levels should be low so that our natural sleep hormones - GABA and Melatonin can activate and do their job to make us feel sleepy.
Think of an imminent danger - picture being confronted by a large dog barking uncontrollably and racing towards you - your heart starts to beat fast, and you either feel a rush of energy to run, defend yourself or you may freeze in panic. Here's what's happening in our body when we experience this scenario:
- Our brain tells our adrenal glands to release cortisol into our bloodstream
- This flood of cortisol triggers large amounts of glucose to also be released in our bloodstream
- The glucose provides immediate energy to our large muscles so we can react to the situation.
- The flood of cortisol also stops the production of insulin in our body. Insulin would start to store the glucose and not allow it all to be used immediately.
- The cortisol causes our arteries to narrow while epinephrine (another hormone) causes our heart rate to increase. This forces your blood to pump harder and faster as you confront the immediate threat.
Dangers of High Cortisol
The high cortisol, high glucose, low insulin, narrow arteries and the extra work on our heart, this takes a big toll on our body. Unmanaged high cortisol levels can have serious consequences on our health. If we don't manage our high cortisol levels, we increase the risk of serious health conditions which include the following (1):
Sleep Disruptions / Insomnia
Chronic stress creates a hyper-cortisol state in our body. When this disturbance occurs at night, when cortisol levels should be at their lowest, our body thinks it needs to be alert and awake thanks to the high cortisol levels. We may fall asleep but then wake up shortly after due to abnormal cortisol spikes that trick our body into thinking it's time to wake up and get the day started.
Elevated cortisol suppresses serotonin and impacts GABA (our sleep hormone)which further contributes to insomnia and/or sleep disturbances. (2)
High Blood Pressure, Heart Disease
Cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to deliver oxygen to the blood. Although this is useful when we are in imminent danger, over time the constricted arteries and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and the build up of plaque. Both of these puts us at a higher risk of a heart attack or heart damage. (3)
Difficulty Concentrating / Brain Fog
With chronic high cortisol levels, our body is constantly 'on' which makes it difficult to calm down and think clearly. Neuroscientists have discovered how chronic stress and cortisol can in fact damage the brain as stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. (4)(8)
Cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores in the liver. With chronic cortisol levels, the body is constantly producing glucose which leads to increased blood sugar levels. (4)
Depression, Anxiety, Negative Mood
Chronically high cortisol levels can lead to anxiety or increased anxiety, low energy, mood swings and depressed mood.
Research shows people diagnosed with depression tend to have lower levels of serotonin in the brain and higher levels of cortisol in their bloodstream. With these low levels of Serotonin, the "feel good" chemical that influences mood, appetite, and sleep stops working correctly and can lead to depression.(5)(6)
Weight Gain / Increased Appetite
Continual high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain. Cortisol can influence the movement of triglycerides from storage and moe them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle). High cortisol results in high glucose levels and insulin suppression leads to cells that are starved of glucose (our cells need the insulin to take the glucose in our blood and allow it into the cell). These energy-deprived cells send hunger signals to the brain. This can result in overeating - with any unused glucose stored as body fat.
In addition, cortisol has an effect on appetite and craving of high-calorie foods and can indirectly influence appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite. (4)
Immunity Issues (Infections)
Cortisol's job is to actually reduce inflammation in the body. However, over time these efforts to reduce the inflammation also suppress the immune system. When we make poor diet choices and are constantly feeling stressed, our cortisol levels remain high which creates chaos in our immune system and increase our risks of:
- developing a cold and other illnesses
- food allergies
- gastrointestinal issues
- possible increased risk of autoimmune disease (4)
We have two nervous systems - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The two systems cannot operate at the same time - when one is active, the other is inactive.
- The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for intense physical activity.
- The parasympathetic nervous system relaxes the body and slows down many high energy functions in our body.
Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system as it's our stress hormone that activates our 'fight or flight' mode.
The parasympathetic nervous system activates during quiet activities such as eating. The body needs the system to be 'quiet' to best make sure it optimally uses the food energy, enzymes and hormones that control digestion and absorption.
When our cortisol levels are constantly high and we consume food - the digestion and absorption processes are a mess. Indigestion develops, our mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed - ulcers develop. We are at risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome and/or colitis. The mucosal inflammation leads to more production of cortisol - the last thing our body needs! This cycle continues as our body is in a state of chronic cortisol chaos. (4)
Work on Lowering Your Cortisol
There are ways to naturally lower our cortisol levels. These include better managing our day to day stress, learning to relax and have fun, deep breathing, exercise, maintain healthy relationships, eat healthy foods and take natural supplements that are proven to reduce cortisol levels.
We've created an all-natural sleep and stress supplement called Shanti. Our main ingredient KSM66-Ashwagandha, is backed by human clinical trials showing it significantly reduces cortisol levels and significantly reduces feelings of stress and anxiety. We call it Shanti - which means 'Peace' and 'Calmness' in Sanskrit.
Shanti contains adaptogen 'super' herbs that help reduce cortisol levels so you can sleep, feel calm and stay focused.
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(6) Dienes KA, Hazel NA, Hammen CL. Cortisol secretion in depressed, and at-risk adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013;38(6):927-940. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.09.019