Cortisol is commonly known as the “Stress Hormone” and is released by the adrenal glands in stressful situations. It is primarily a catabolic hormone as it signals the body to release energy for what it perceives to be an emergency survival situation. It has short term beneficial effects when stress is sporadic and short term. It has profound long term detrimental effects when stress is chronic.
For most people who live within the influence of fast-paced 21st Century lifestyle, chronic stress and the resulting long term levels of excess cortisol are a primary health problem. The detrimental effects are far reaching and serious.
Role of Cortisol in a Short Term, Stressful Situation
When we experience a stressful situation, the adrenals release cortisol which signals the liver to release glucose. This raises blood sugar for short term increased energy, giving us the ability to respond to the stressful situation as needed.
Cortisol signals the release of amino acids from muscles. This is a vital part of gluconeogenesis which is the body’s way of producing glucose in the liver to maintain stable blood sugar when needed.
Short term stress and the resulting elevation of cortisol lowers the function of systems non-essential to immediate survival. Specifically, these are the immune, digestive and reproductive systems.
Regulates inflammatory conditions, has anti-inflammatory effect
Negative Effects of Cortisol in Long Term, Excessively Stressful Lifestyles
The body shifts energy away from the immune, digestive and reproductive systems and directs it to what should be short term emergency energy. This leads to a chronic hypo-functioning of these systems. At the very least, strong digestive and immune systems are foundations for good health.
Long term, the muscles physically break down to release the amino acids to as part of gluconeogenesis. This long term catabolic process causes muscular atrophy.
Blood Sugar and Obesity
When the body is stressed, it signals for increased appetite, especially for sweets. This is meant to provide extra energy for physical exertion. In the modern world, much of the stress is from over-stimulation of the nervous system and an intense physical response is not needed.. The excess sugar is not needed by the muscles so it remains in the blood stream, causing high blood sugar.
The body knows high blood sugar is unhealthy so more insulin is secreted by the pancreas to push the sugar into the muscles and out of the blood. High levels of insulin and blood sugar puts the body in a fat storing – carbohydrate using – no muscle producing state. This is a direct cause of obesity, Insulin Resistance and various forms of heart disease.
Chronically high levels of stress and cortisol throw the reproductive cycle out of balance. One sign of this is a reduced sex drive – the energy goes to survival in the moment rather than procreation in the future.
Cortisol is a survival hormone. Estrogen and progesterone are reproductive hormones. Survival always takes precedence over reproduction. If the adrenals become deficient and unable to produce enough cortisol, the body uses progesterone to create more cortisol. This leads to a progesterone deficiency. From a ratio perspective, lowered progesterone leads to excess estrogen. Excess stress and chronically elevated cortisol have a direct and strongly negative influence on a woman’s monthly cycle and over all health.