So, cortisol is supposed to help us out in stressful situations, as in – when our life is in danger. What we find stressful is subjective. What causes one person to worry might not get a second thought from another. I have come across many “stressed out” people in the last two weeks, several of whom should be role-modeling a calm existence of well-being. I figured the time is right to blog about not just stress, but the negative physiological consequences of it.
Cortisol is an important hormone that is secreted by our adrenal glands. It helps regulate response to stress, among a few other things. The interesting thing about cortisol is that its levels fluctuate throughout the day in a circadian rhythm. Under relatively stress-free circumstances, cortisol is at its highest in the morning when the sun has come up and lowest in the middle of the night or pre-dawn, when you should be sound asleep (hopefully).
Cortisol influences changes in the body, including:
- Blood glucose
- Metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrate
- Blood pressure
- Heart and blood vessels
- Central nervous system activation
Our body secretes cortisol in response to stress. By stress, an example would be when you are forced to hit the brakes because your life is in danger – not our everyday mundane things that pile up each day. This adrenal response to stress is necessary for our body. It prepares us to respond. Where we all seem to be getting into trouble these days is that our lifestyle is jam-packed with work, constant connectivity, and negative messaging all day (24 hour news has to fill the time). These things, piled up with relationships and daily life can cause a faucet of cortisol to be turned on, that just doesn’t get turned off.
Once cortisol is secreted, it’s really important that the levels be returned to normal. Our bodies were not meant to be walking around with cortisol being secreted in large amounts over prolonged periods of time. Chronic stress and prolonged, elevated levels of cortisol can have negative effects, including:
- Impaired cognitive function
- Impaired thyroid function
- Blood glucose imbalances
- Sleep problems
- Decreased muscle mass
- Elevated blood pressure
- Impaired immune function
- Slow wound healing
- Increased abdominal fat
Something else to consider is that beyond keeping our daily “stressors” under control, we also have to remember that things like caffeine and exercise (at high enough intensities) can also raise cortisol levels. Monitoring these types of lifestyle choices may also be necessary in helping clients address signs and symptoms of elevated cortisol levels. When we tell clients about how important it is to find healthy outlets for stress management, sometimes a brief explanation of the science can go a long way.