Cortisol: How This Stress Hormone Can Sabotage Health

 stress, cortisol, blood sugar, diabetes, thyroid, adrenals, weight gain, obesity, abdominal fat, osteoporosis, immune system, heart disease, blood pressure, exercise, sleep, family, friends, supplements, GABA, magnesium, melatonin, theanine, valerian, ashwaghanda, pets, caffeine, alcohol

Stress is a natural and inevitable part of life. Every day, we experience some sort of stress. Our alarms go off and we hit snooze, already setting ourselves behind. We get stuck in traffic. Job demands weigh heavily on us. And then it’s time to go home and make dinner, pay the bills, get the kids ready for bed, and begin the cycle all over again.

Yes, stress is normal. But if we’re not careful, and we let it affect us chronically and to the core, it can wreak havoc on our health.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released to actually protect us. Cortisol gives us quick energy. It helps regulate the body’s blood sugar levels. It acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. It influences memory, controls salt and water balance, stabilizes blood pressure, and even helps in fetal development.

Chronic Cortisol Elevation

Acute stress, like the kind we feel in an emergency, elicits a cortisol response (along with adrenaline and norepinephrine). It’s needed in the moment to give us clarity and the ability to act quickly. However, having chronically elevated cortisol, because we are always stressed, isn’t so good for us. It’s important to have measures in place that allow us to deal with the day’s stresses — tactics that help us calm down and that bring us happiness. We’ll get to some stress relief techniques later. But in the meantime, let’s look at the ill effects of long-term elevated cortisol.

1) Blood Sugar Imbalances

Cortisol can cause major sugar cravings. Firstly, it creates an insulin-resistant state in the body. When insulin can’t usher sugar into the cells, they scream out for more food and more sugar. Over time, this can lead to Type 2 Diabetes as the process exhausts the pancreas.

2) Weight Gain

As we mentioned, our bodies feel like they’re being starved of sugar when they’re under stress. So, the brain sends out powerful hunger signals. You actually do feel cravings and want to eat more frequently during times of stress. It’s not in your imagination.

In addition, elevated cortisol tends to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as "toxic fat." 

3) Osteoporosis

Your bones can actually begin to suffer from the effects of stress. In short, cortisol can increase the turnover of old bone and reduce new bone growth. And remember those sugar cravings we mentioned? Well sugar isn’t good for bone density. It creates an acidic environment which may cause bones to leach out important minerals in an effort to alkalinize the body. Cortisol also dampens the body’s ability to absorb key nutrients. (I wrote an entire article about the stress-cortisol-osteoporosis connection here.)

4) Decreased Immunity

Cortisol works in the body to reduce inflammation, which is great temporarily. But over the long run, this can also suppress the immune system’s ability to function properly. This leaves us susceptible to contracting illnesses and even diseases like cancer or autoimmune conditions. Food allergies or sensitivities and intestinal permeability may also occur.

5) Increased Risk for Heart Disease

Earlier we mentioned that cortisol helps to stabilize blood pressure. What it really does it elevate blood pressure when we need it during acute stress, to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood to the brain. However, constant constriction of blood vessels can lead to hypertension, which may lead to vessel damage and plaque buildup—the perfect scenario for a heart attack.

6) Adrenal and Thyroid Dysregulation

Without getting too technical, cortisol is made in the adrenal glands. Too much cortisol constantly being pumped out can deplete both the adrenals and the thyroid gland. Signs of adrenal fatigue include: being extremely tired, headaches, decreased immunity, mood swings, sugar and caffeine cravings, “wired and tired” feeling at night, irritability, lightheadedness, and dizziness. Signs of low thyroid include: weight gain, fatigue, feeling cold, achy joints and muscles, hair loss, dry skin, depression, trouble concentrating, brain fog, constipation, heavy or irregular periods.

Stress Relief Tips

Sometimes stress can be situational and temporary. When stress becomes chronic, we need to implement techniques to reduce the burden on our bodies.

1) Exercise — Walking and yoga are great. Intense exercise isn’t good during times of increased stress. Aim to exercise daily.

2) Get Good Sleep — Sleep 7-9 hours every night. This promotes cortisol regulation and helps to shut off our minds.

3) Make Time for Friends & Family — Having healthy relationships is important. We produce “feel good” hormones when we’re around loved ones, especially when we can laugh, hug, and touch.

4) Be Grateful — Make a list of things you’re grateful for and keep track of them in a gratitude journal. This promotes positive thinking.

5) Take a Relaxing Bath — Warm water helps to relax the body. If you can, add some Epsom salts to the bath water as well. The magnesium in them has calming effects.

6) Pray or Meditate — Practicing spirituality helps to focus our minds on the bigger picture. Belief in a higher power also takes some of the burden off of us. These practices center our thoughts and eliminate the “noise” around us.

7) Reduce Caffeine and Alcohol — Caffeine is a stimulant that can exacerbate the stress response in our bodies. Although on the surface consuming alcohol seems like a good way to relax, continuous consumption over an extended period of time has been shown to raise cortisol levels in the body. 

8) Get a Pet — Cuddling with a pet produces oxytocin which helps lessen the stress response. Also, walking a dog can help you get outside and be more active.

9) Just Say “No” — It’s okay to take some things off of your plate when you’re stressed. Now is not the time to be a people-pleaser. Open up your schedule for things you enjoy doing like hanging out with friends and family, watching TV, reading a book, or just laying on the couch!

10) Take Helpful Supplements — The following are some supplements known to help reduce stress levels. (Be sure to check with your physician before taking them.)

  • Ashwaghanda

  • Valerian Root

  • Melatonin

  • Rhodiola

  • Holy Basil

  • Magnesium

  • GABA

  • Vitamin-B Complex

  • Theanine

I hope you’ve found some of these tips helpful. Tackling stress is tough, but it’s necessary. Prioritize yourself and your well-being so that you can live the happiest and healthiest life possible.

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