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What is Cortisol?

We’ve all experienced stress in our lives. To some extend we even need stress in our lives to perform well at work, for instance.

Stress is a natural response of the human body to threats or excess demand. When dealing with stressors on a daily basis our body releases two classes of hormones; catecholamines and glucocorticoids. Catecholomines work via the nervous system stimulating the so called flight-or-fight response. While glucocorticoids, such as cortisol act via the hormonal route.

Cortisol’s function

The human body releases on average 10 mg of cortisol daily, though this can increase during stressful situations. That is mainly the reason why cortisol is called the stress hormone. As a reaction to higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, the contraction of the medium arteries and heart muscle slightly increases, causing a higher blood pressure. As a result, there is more energy available, our memory function and immunity increases and sensitivity to pain reduces. Additionally, cortisol regulates fat and glucose metabolism.

Although cortisol levels vary greatly throughout the day, they are mainly high in the morning when waking up and gradually fall during the day. People working at night experience cortisol levels in a reversed pattern.

Prolonged high levels of cortisol

Our never ending stressful society in which we’re living nowadays, causes our body to pump out cortisol almost constantly. Although this stress hormone has a crucial role in our body, prolonged high levels of cortisol have been associated with many different symptoms. In stressful situations “the immune cells are being bathed in molecules which are essentially telling them to stop fighting,” according to Dr. Esther Sternberg. These molecules, namely cortisol, withhold the immune system and inflammatory pathways, which is why we are more susceptible to disease in extremely stressful circumstances. Moreover, prolonged high levels of cortisol can cause Cushing’s syndrome, impaired cognition, decreased thyroid function, and a build-up of abdominal fat (which raises the risk of cardiovascular disease), a lack of sex drive and, in women, periods can become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether.

High levels of cortisol in relation to eating habits

Studies showed that respondents ate more on a stressful day, when the cortisol levels were higher, than respondents who ate during a control day. Numerous studies also showed that high levels of cortisol increases binge eating and the intake of sugary and fatty foods.

What to do

Lowering prolonged high levels of cortisol can be managed by changing your sleeping pattern, eating habits, exercise routine and stress levels. For lifestyle and diet tips please see our other blog post on ‘How to overcome adrenal fatigue’.