The "Stress Chemical" Cortisol: Short And Long-Term Effects On The Human Body
By: Ty Bailey
Updated March 22, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown
Most everyone has heard about the hormone, or "stress chemical," known as cortisol. It's often considered a bad thing due to it being one of the main chemicals triggered by experiencing stress, but this hormone has many other roles and does so much more than just trigger a person's "fight or flight" instincts.
What Is Cortisol?
The adrenal glands in the human body may sound like they're strictly responsible for producing adrenaline, but they produce numerous different hormones for regulating blood pressure, electrolyte balance, metabolism, and immune system suppression. One of the hormones produced by these two glands is the chemical known as cortisol.
Majority of the cells within a person's body contain cortisol receptors, and because of this, cortisol plays a significant role in many different functions. Cortisol is responsible for regulating a person's metabolism, their blood sugar levels, and their blood pressure. It also contributes to memory formation in individuals, and it assists in fetal development in the case of pregnant women. Cortisol is also capable of reducing inflammation within the body, hence corticosteroids, hydrocortisone, and other similar medications that contain cortisone (a very closely related chemical to cortisol) being used for the treatment of certain injuries and inflammatory conditions.
What Triggers the Release Of Cortisol In The Body?
Most people know that incidents of stress can cause the body to produce cortisol, but there are also other factors in a person's day-to-day life that may increase the levels of cortisol within the body.
A lack of proper sleep, or individuals that sleep during the day rather than at night, have been shown to have higher levels of cortisol present compared to those who receive an appropriate amount of sleep at night or have more regular sleep schedules. As expected, those who suffer from insomnia or frequently wake throughout the night are likely to have elevated levels of cortisol, and this generally may last around 24 hours depending upon if they can eventually get back into healthier sleep habits, or it may continue if their insomnia persists.
While exercise may produce a healthy amount of cortisol in the body for those, who partake in it regularly and are in shape, even smaller amounts of exercise (regardless of intensity) may cause elevated cortisol levels in those who are out of shape, unhealthier, or dealing with obesity. However, for those who stick to a reasonable regimen and have their bodies eventually adjust to the level of activity they are participating in, these levels will eventually even out and fall into the healthier and more normal ranges for release.
In addition to stressful situations in general, self-imposed stress can also trigger the release of higher amounts of cortisol in an individual. Having a negative mindset or dealing with emotions such as guilt, shame, or inadequacy has also been shown to have a significant impact on cortisol levels. Stress doesn't always have to be an external factor to affect a person's mind and body.
Unhealthy eating habits are also a contributing factor to increased cortisol levels. Consuming excess amounts of sugar can cause an unhealthy amount of cortisol to be released into the body, especially for those who may already be struggling with obesity. Oddly enough, though, sugar may also help to reduce the levels of cortisol in a person when consumed in response to stressful stimuli. This is often why we feel comforted by "stress eating" some sweets; excess consumption over a prolonged period can be very detrimental to overall health though. On a dietary note, dehydration has also been linked to increased cortisol levels as well.
How Does Cortisol Affect The Mind?
High concentrations or prolonged elevated levels of cortisol can have some pretty unpleasant effects on a person's mind and mental health. Constant or intense exposure can contribute to the development or worsening of conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. When the body is unable to "reset" after a period of intense stress, and the excess release of cortisol maintains an ongoing state of distress in an individual, this can specifically lead to the development of depression in those who may already be susceptible to mental illness or other mental health concerns. Unhealthy levels of cortisol can alter a person's DNA and put them at a significantly higher risk of psychological concerns over time.
Elevated levels of cortisol over an extended period can also cause physical changes to the brain. Chronic stress has been proven to cause physical changes within the brain and how it functions, leading to an overactive and consistent "fight or flight" response taking place alongside physical effects leading to a decrease in one's learning ability and memory retention. Cortisol has also been shown in lab tests involving rats to damage and kill brain cells, cause premature aging of the brain, and decrease the rate at which the brain can produce healthy and new cells. All of these factors contribute to anxiety, neurodegenerative disorders, depression, cognition problems, brain fog, and memory trouble.
How Does Cortisol Affect The Body?
Cortisol plays a significant role in many of the functions of a person's body. Some of these include regulating blood pressure, increasing blood sugar when needed, regulating your sleep and wake cycle, reducing inflammation, restoring balance after a fight or flight response, providing energy when confronting a stressful situation (and allowing one to think and process things more clearly), and managing how the body processes and uses proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
The effects of cortisol release when experiencing eustress, or "positive stress," can have positive effects on the body such as improving mental and physical performance, providing emotional balance and rational thinking, boost feelings of motivation, and allow an individual to focus their energy positively. This can be in reaction to something such as receiving a promotion at one's job or acquiring a new job, taking classes and furthering one's education, learning a new skill or hobby, or getting married and having children. These are positive stressors and will signal the same "stress" response within the body, but the effects are short-term and often beneficially so.
When too much cortisol is present though or occurring in a negative context, it can present several problems. High levels of cortisol or for a longer period can lead to effects such as digestive troubles, problems with concentration, impaired memory, headaches, heart disease, depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and even weight gain. For women, high levels of cortisol may also have effects on their menstrual cycle and libido. In severe cases, the overproduction of cortisol can lead to a condition referred to as "Cushing syndrome."
Health Conditions Related To Cortisol
There are two primary health conditions related to the hormone cortisol; one is caused by too much of the hormone, and the other is caused by levels of cortisol that are far too low.
Cushing syndrome, or Cushing disease, is a condition caused by prolonged and high levels of cortisol within the body. Some of the signs and symptoms of a person with Cushing's or high cortisol levels might exhibit skin that begins to bruise easily and an increase or the sudden appearance of acne. There is also significant weight gain, especially in the face and midsection, and individuals with this condition may also develop a "hump" on their back due to unusual fatty tissue deposits developing between their shoulder blades and upper back areas. Someone with Cushing syndrome will also develop stretch marks due to thinning skin and also likely notice slow, and impaired healing of any cuts, wounds, or bug bites, and also have troubles with infections as well.
Men with this condition may experience a loss of libido, trouble with erectile dysfunction, and a decrease in fertility. Women will likely notice a change in their menstrual cycle, with their periods becoming either irregular or disappearing entirely. It is also common for women with Cushing disease to develop thicker and more noticeable body hair and even facial hair. Children may experience impaired and slowed growth as a result of chronically high cortisol levels.
In addition to the primary symptoms of this disease, those afflicted may also experience fatigue, headaches, trouble with emotional regulation, muscle weakness, irritability, depression, anxiety, trouble with high blood pressure (whether it's new or worsened), an increase in skin pigmentation (darkening), issues related to cognitive abilities, and bone loss that can later contribute to fractures and other bone-related injuries.
Cushing disease can be caused by the body itself overproducing cortisol due to stress or other health factors to cause these effects, but can also be triggered by the overuse or improper dosing of corticosteroids used in the treatment of many other health conditions. When the body itself overproduces cortisol, this can be caused by tumors on the pituitary gland, primary adrenal gland disease, tumors on the endocrine glands, and ACTH-secreting tumors. In women, the most common factor for increased levels of cortisol is due to estrogen, especially in the cases of pregnancy.
If left untreated, this condition can cause secondary health concerns such as high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, loss of muscle mass and muscle strength, odd and frequent infections within the body, and osteoporosis (bone loss).
Addison's Disease, on the other hand, is a condition that occurs when the body is unable to produce the appropriate amount of cortisol, and these levels fall too low. This often occurs over months or more and goes undetected until symptoms become severe enough to seek medical help.
Some of the symptoms of excessively low cortisol in an individual are low blood pressure (which can lead to fainting spells), extreme fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, depression, irritability, pain in the abdomen, pain in muscles and in joints, decreased appetite and weight loss, loss of one's body hair, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), and hyperpigmentation (darkening of one's skin). Women may also experience a decrease in libido and impaired sexual function.
If symptoms all seem to arise suddenly or become severe, Addison's disease can cause acute adrenal failure and become life-threatening. Signs that point to the need for immediate medical attention in regards to this condition are confusion, extreme weakness, pain in the legs or lower back, delirium or reduced consciousness, and severe abdominal pains alongside digestive symptoms that would be contributing to dehydration (such as vomiting or diarrhea). If not treated immediately, these severe symptoms can lead to shock and even death.
Adrenal insufficiency is the key factor associated with Addison's disease, and this often occurs due to a disorder affecting one's adrenal glands, damage to the glands, or the impaired and lower secretion of ACTH by the afflicted individual's pituitary gland.
For those with regularly high stress levels, there are multiple ways to decrease stress and lower cortisol levels. Sometimes this may just involve lifestyle changes such as getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. Meditation and relaxation exercise are highly effective in reducing short-term stress and helping an individual get back to feeling like their normal selves sooner. For others with more significant stress-causing concerns, they may need to make more significant changes such as changing jobs, removing themselves from an unhealthy relationship, or seeking professional help to assist them in overcoming some of the stressful factors present in their lives that may not always be a quick fix on their own. A person can also help to lower their stress levels by indulging in self-care, taking time to help others, caring for their pets, or taking herbal supplements such as fish oil or ashwagandha.
In severe cases such as Cushing syndrome and Addison's disease, medical treatment and intervention will be necessary to return the body to a healthier state. Those with Cushing disease and excessively high levels of cortisol will likely have to reduce the amount of corticosteroid use in the treatment of any of their other health conditions, use prescription medications to reduce and regulate the amount of cortisol within the body, receive surgery if a tumor is a contributing cause to their condition, or even receive radiation if they're unable to undergo a surgical procedure to correct the damage done by any possible tumors on their affected glands.
Those with Addison's disease have no other options but to be treated with medications to correct the low levels of cortisol within their body. Oral corticosteroids are the primary form of hormone replacement used in these cases and are dosed in a way to mimic the body's natural production levels throughout the day. They will also require additional salt in their diet to avoid dehydration and a worsening of symptoms.
It is also recommended that patients with Addison's disease take preventative measures and extra precautions in their daily lives such as always wearing a medical alert bracelet and carrying a medical alert card, keeping a glucocorticoid injection kit with them at all times in the event of an emergency, and carrying extra medication with them just to be safe.
If you're under a lot of stress or feel like some of the symptoms or conditions above may be relative to your current health concerns, don't hesitate to reach out to a trusted physician to get checked out or to contact one of the trained professional at BetterHelp's online therapy resources to receive further information regarding next steps or how to best handle stress or the diagnosis of a serious health condition.
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