Cortisol: Why You Need to Know About It
As a high stress kind of guy, who endures a mood and anxiety disorder, it's always been important to me to understand why my brain and body do what they do. Several years ago, I began learning about cortisol; and I'd like to share a few tidbits.
Known as the stress hormone, cortisol plays a huge role in our overall functioning. It's best known for managing our response to stress. And it does so by increasing blood sugar, suppressing the immune system, and aiding in the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
Situational secretion of cortisol is natural and necessary; however, when it's over-secreted in the presence of chronic stress, all sorts of unpleasant consequences may occur. These include high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, diabetes, immune system inhibition, muscle atrophy, and osteoporosis.
Over-secretion of cortisol also produces fat around the organs. It's known as central, or visceral, fat; and presents as a - well - fat belly.
Research tells us excessive cortisol levels are a factor in the mood and anxiety disorders. The exact mechanisms are still up for grabs; however, it's likely due to cortisol's impact upon neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine.
Cortisol levels are typically at their highest around 8 a.m., and bottom-out between midnight and 4 a.m. - or three to five hours after the onset of sleep. This cycle begins to occur between two weeks to nine months old.
Cortisol is the end product of an anatomical and physiological circuit known as the HPA axis. It's composed of the brain's hypothalamus and pituitary gland; as well as the adrenal glands, one atop each kidney.
These structures, and their secretions, work as a team in regulating functions and states such as stress response, mood, digestion, immune response, sexuality, and energy usage.
It all begins with the hypothalamus producing and secreting something known as corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH). The baton then gets passed to the pituitary gland, which secretes adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH). ACTH knocks on the door of the adrenal glands, stimulating the secretion of a group of steroid hormones known as the glucocorticoids. And the most important human glucocorticoid is - you guessed it - cortisol.
Signs & Symptoms of Trouble
Let's take a look at some of the indicators of potential problems due to over-secretion of cortisol…
- Frequent illnesses
- Weight gain or loss
- Increase in abdominal fat
- Compromised verbal declarative memory (words, names, numbers)
- Low sex drive
- Hair loss
- Type-2 diabetes
- Poor bone health
- Irregular menstrual cycle
Cortisol level testing is typically ordered when a physician suspects either of the adrenal diseases, Addison's Disorder or Cushing's Syndrome. So you have to know that testing is reserved for a constellation of nasty symptoms. Testing may be performed using urine, saliva, or blood.
So how 'bout a list of some of the things we can do on an ongoing basis to side-step trouble with cortisol?
- Do all we can to avoid burnout
- Consider using omega-3 fatty acids
- Massage and meditation
- Enjoy some sexual activity - particularly intercourse
- Eliminate caffeine and stimulants
- Sip a bit of black tea
- Socialize, listen to music, laugh
- Get eight hours of sleep - nap if necessary
- Exercise - but remember, overexertion may spike cortisol levels
- Talk with your physician if you're taking Prednisone, hydrocortisone, or birth control pills
- Do everything possible to ease the stress of your daily work or school commute
So that's why we need to know about cortisol. Yes, it's an incredibly powerful and influential hormone. And the more we learn about it, the healthier we'll be (and stay). As always, knowledge is power.