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Cortisol - The Stress Hormone

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Cortisol - The Stress Hormone

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Cortisol is a stress hormone because of its connection to the stress response. Please read the article to learn more details.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sharvil Suresh Gadve

Published At October 25, 2021
Reviewed AtMay 17, 2024

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the human body. It is responsible for the body's response to stress and is also called the stress hormone. Cortisol is also responsible for maintaining various bodily functions and metabolism. The adrenal gland produces this hormone, but it interacts with certain parts of the human brain, which helps control mood, fear, and motivation. Cortisol is also responsible for the proper functioning of the following things that the human body does.

1. It helps maintain and manage how the body uses nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

2. This hormone helps to keep the inflammatory response function normal.

3. It helps in the proper regulation of blood pressure.

4. Cortisol is responsible for proper glucose metabolism.

5. Also, it controls the sleep cycle.

6. It boosts the energy to overcome the stress and restore balance.

How Does Cortisol Work?

The adrenal gland produces cortisol hormone as a response to stress or fear, which is natural as it is a part of the human body's fight or flight response. So, for example, if any concern or threat confronts a person, several reactions occur in the body within a very short period, making these reactions almost instantaneous. These reactions will prepare the body to stay and face a threat (fear) or escape to safety (flight).

The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, located in the brain, are responsible for sensing whether the cortisol level in the blood is normal. When the cortisol level is less than normal, the brain sends signals to the adrenal gland to adjust the hormone level required to attain balance. This entire procedure is initiated and managed by a brain structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is also responsible for another hormone balance called adrenaline.

Once the hormone is released into the blood, the cortisol receptors in the human body's cells will receive this hormone and consume it for different activities in different ways. That being said, the level of cortisol required does not stay the same and differs from one day to another. Suppose the body is on full alert and the cortisol level becomes higher than usual; in that case, it might interfere with our body's primary function, including the digestive and reproductive systems.

What Are the Signs of High Cortisol?

Like other hormones, an increase in cortisol will create unwanted reactions in the body. If a person is experiencing a constant or prolonged increase in cortisol level due to factors such as chronic stress or stressful work life, then a negative impact occurs in the body. They are:

  • Decreased bone density.

  • Increased abdominal fat.

  • Higher blood pressure.

  • Decrease in muscle tissue.

  • Blood sugar imbalance results in hyperglycemia.

  • Impaired cognitive performance.

  • Suppressed thyroid functioning.

  • Lowered immunity and slow healing rate.

  • Reduced inflammatory response.

These signs negatively impact the body and might lead to other health concerns. For instance, an increase in abdominal fat has a higher chance of health problems compared to fat in other parts of the body. Such health conditions include heart attacks, strokes, metabolic syndrome, and imbalance in good and bad cholesterol levels.

One of the most severe complications of chronic stress and prolonged elevation of blood cortisol levels is Cushing syndrome. Cushing syndrome is associated with its own set of signs and symptoms, which include:

  • High blood sugar.

  • Increased thirst and urination.

  • Osteoporosis.

  • Depression.

  • Frequent infection.

What Happens When There Is Not Enough Cortisol?

Cortisol levels vary throughout the day. The levels of cortisol in the blood, urine, and saliva are found to be high in the early mornings and decrease throughout the day, reaching their lowest level at midnight. This pattern is affected among individuals who work night shifts and those who sleep at different times every day.

The normal range of cortisol levels include

  • 10-20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) around 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.

  • 3-10 mcg/dL at around 4 p.m.

Normal cortisol ranges may vary depending on lab, time, and person.

As mentioned earlier, the body needs to maintain a normal level of cortisol hormone. If there is a decrease in the cortisol level in the blood, it leads to a condition called Addison's disease. The symptoms of Addison's disease appear gradually over time, and they include:

  • Being tired all the time.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Changes in skin complexion include the darkening of scars and skin folds.

  • Loss of appetite and body weight.

  • Low blood pressure.

What Are Some Tips to Maintain Normal Cortisol Levels?

The cortisol level in the blood is elevated due to the fight-or-flight response. Hence, the body needs to relax well to maintain the cortisol level in the normal range. This can be done through various relaxation, stress management techniques, and lifestyle changes. Some of the techniques that relax the body and mind and have shown effective results in maintaining the cortisol level include:

  • Breathing exercise.

  • Journaling.

  • Listening to music.

  • Meditation.

  • Exercise.

  • Guided imaginary and self-hypnosis.

  • Yoga.

  • Sex.

Consuming foods can raise cortisol levels. There is a relationship between foods and cortisol levels. The foods consumed affect cortisol levels, which can affect what to eat.

These foods include-

  • Foods High in Sugar: When an individual experiences stress, craves sugary foods and drinks. Over time, eating sugary foods can raise cortisol levels. The type of sugar eaten increases the levels of cortisol. Sugar from fruits may help decrease sugar levels, while sugar from processed foods may increase cortisol levels.

  • Caffeine: A study has shown that caffeine increases cortisol levels. The FDA has found that 400mg of caffeine per day is safe.

  • Alcohol: Studies have shown that alcohol can help reduce anxiety and relax. Alcohol was found to increase cortisol levels.

  • Vitamins: Foods that contain vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin E, and fish oil may help increase cortisol levels.

  • Tryptophan: Foods that contain tryptophan, such as soybeans, seaweed, chia seeds, cheese, and egg whites, help increase cortisol levels.

How to Treat High and Low Cortisol Levels?

Cortisol levels should be in the optimal range for the proper functioning of the body. Any imbalance (either up or down directions) will affect bodily functions, and hence, the patient needs to reach out to a healthcare professional. Also, different people react differently to the stress-causing source and threats. Therefore, no single treatment or preventive measure can be implemented for all persons.

  • For a High Level of Cortisol: Cortisol levels might increase due to various factors, one such factor being the side effects of some medicines. In such cases, the doctor might reduce the dosage or change to a different medication to help reduce the cortisol level.

Medications such as Mitotane and Metyrapone efficiently reduce the level of cortisol in the blood. In cases of severe conditions, such as a tumor, the only treatment options are surgery or radiotherapy.

  • For a Low Level of Cortisol: Cortisol belongs to the group of hormones called glucocorticoids, and one treatment for low cortisol is replacing the cortisol hormone. This can be done simply with synthetic oral glucocorticoids such as Dexamethasone, Prednisone, or Hydrocortisone. For severe cases, hospitalization is required to administer intravenous glucocorticoids and saline solution along with dextrose.

Conclusion:

Practice some good relaxation techniques as they help activate and regulate the body's functions after a stressful event. It is a considerable challenge to allow the body to relax and return the cortisol level to normal in a stressful life. So, follow regular relaxation techniques and adapt to the various lifestyle changes required to lead a peaceful and happy life.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

Is Cortisol a Stress Hormone?

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that increases sugars in the bloodstream. It is called the stress hormone due to its connection to the stress response. Cortisol enhances the brain's use of glucose and the availability of tissue repair substances. It also curbs functions that are harmful in a fight-or-flight situation.

2.

What Do High Levels of Cortisol Do to the Body?

High levels of cortisol may increase the risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes.
- High blood pressure.
- Lack of energy.
- Heart disease.
- Osteoporosis.
- Difficulty speaking.
- Weight gain.
- Other chronic diseases.

3.

What Is the Main Effect of Cortisol?

Most of our body cells have cortisol receptors, which impose many different functions in the body. Cortisol helps to:
Regulate metabolism.
- Control blood sugar levels.
- Assist with memory formulation.
- Help reduce inflammation.
- Control blood pressure - Maintains the salt and water balance.

4.

Is Cortisol Good or Bad for the Body?

Amygdala is a brain structure that alerts the hypothalamus. It signals a range of response areas, such as the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is essential for the normal functioning of the body, but too much cortisol is bad for health.

5.

What Are the Symptoms of High Cortisol?

The symptoms of high cortisol are weight gain, rounding of the face, thinning skin, acne, easy bruising, slowed healing, flushed face, muscle weakness, severe fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, high blood pressure, and headache.

6.

What Causes High Cortisol at Night?

Obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder, affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and causes spikes in cortisol production. It is said that patients whose CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines were withdrawn at night had elevated blood glucose levels and cortisol when tested.

7.

What Foods Reduce Cortisol Levels?

Foods that reduce cortisol levels are dark chocolate, bananas, pears, black or green tea, probiotics in food such as yogurt and which contain soluble fiber.

8.

Can Cortisol Cause Belly Fat?

Abdominal fat tends to increase cortisol levels, and this can lead to an unhealthy cycle, especially in women. It is said that increased stress or cortisol can cause weight gain and increased abdominal fat.

9.

Does Caffeine Increase Cortisol?

Stress and caffeine can both elevate cortisol levels. In addition, high amounts of caffeine lead to negative health effects and prolonged elevated cortisol levels, such as in chronic stress.

10.

Does Magnesium Lower Cortisol?

Physical and emotional stress is a constant reality that drains the body of magnesium. It is said that there is an inverse relationship between serum magnesium and cortisol; that is, the higher the magnesium, the lower the cortisol.
Dr. Sharvil Suresh Gadve
Dr. Sharvil Suresh Gadve

Endocrinology

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