The "Stress Chemical" Cortisol: Short And Long-Term Effects On The Human Body
Have you ever heard of the "stress hormone?" Cortisol is often referred to by this name, although several chemical processes may occur when someone is stressed, including the release of adrenaline. The chemical is often seen in a negative light. However, this hormone does much more than respond to stress.
What Is Cortisol?
Most of the cells within a person's body contain cortisol receptors. Thus, cortisol is involved in numerous bodily functions. Cortisol plays a role in controlling metabolism, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure. It also contributes to memory formation in individuals and assists in fetal development for those who are pregnant.
Cortisol is also considered a steroid hormone, and may reduce inflammation within the body. For this reason, corticosteroids, hydrocortisone, and other medications that contain cortisone (a closely related chemical) are often used to treat specific injuries and inflammatory conditions.
What Activates The Release Of Cortisol In The Body?
Incidents of stress are often referred to as the leading cause of cortisol production. Still, other factors in an individual's daily life may also increase the cortisol levels within the body.
Lack Of Sleep
A lack of proper sleep, particularly for individuals who sleep during the day rather than at night, has been linked to higher levels of the hormone cortisol compared to those who receive an appropriate amount of sleep at night or have more regular sleep schedules. Those who experience insomnia or frequently wake up throughout the night may also experience elevated cortisol levels.
Low Amounts Of Exercise
While exercise could produce a healthy amount of cortisol in the body for those who partake in it regularly, 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 regimen and build tolerance, these levels may eventually even out and fall into the healthier ranges.
Stress doesn't always have to be an external factor to affect a person's mind and body. In addition to stressful situations in general, self-imposed stress may trigger the body’s stress response and release higher amounts of cortisol in an individual. A negative mindset or dealing with emotions such as guilt, shame, or inadequacy can significantly impact an individual’s stress response and cortisol levels.
Unhealthy Eating Habits
Unhealthy eating habits are also contributing factors to increased cortisol levels. Consuming excess sugar can cause an unhealthy amount of cortisol to be released into the body for those who may already be struggling with obesity.
However, sugar may also reduce cortisol levels when consumed in response to stressful stimuli. This process is often why we feel comforted by "stress eating" some sweets. Excess consumption over a prolonged period can cause other health risks, however.
How Does Cortisol Affect The Mind?
High concentrations or prolonged elevated levels of cortisol might have unpleasant effects on mental health. Constant or intense exposure can contribute to developing or worsening conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for instance.
When the body is unable to "reset" after a period of intense stress, and the excess release of cortisol maintains a constant state of distress in an individual, this may lead to the development of depression in those who may already be susceptible to mental illness or other mental health concerns. Unhealthy cortisol levels can also alter a person's DNA and put them at a significantly higher risk of psychological conditions.
Physical Changes To The Brain
Elevated cortisol levels over an extended period can also cause physical changes in the brain. Chronic stress has been proven to cause changes within the brain and how it functions, leading to an overactive and consistent "fight or flight" response.
Other physical effects include 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 brain aging, and decrease the rate at which the brain can produce new and healthy cells. All these factors contribute to conditions like anxiety, neurodegenerative disorders, depression, cognition problems, brain fog, and memory trouble.
How Does Cortisol Affect The Body? Positive And Negative Effects
Cortisol often plays a significant role in the functions of a person's body. These include:
- Controlling blood pressure
- Supplying high blood sugar when needed
- Managing your sleep and wake cycle
- Reducing inflammation
- Restoring balance after a fight or flight response
- Providing energy when confronting stressful events
- Allowing one to think and process clearly
- Managing how the body processes and uses proteins, fats, and carbohydrates
Positive Effects Of Cortisol
The effects of cortisol release when experiencing eustress, or "positive stress," can positively affect the body. Some of these benefits include:
- Improving mental and physical performance
- Preventing low blood pressure
- Providing emotional balance and rational thinking
- Boosting feelings of motivation
- Allowing an individual to focus their energy positively
Positive stress may occur in reaction to receiving a promotion at one's job, 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 may signal the same "stress" response within the body, but the effects are often short-term and beneficial.
Negative Impacts Of Cortisol
When a high cortisol level is present or occurs in a negative context, it might present several problems. High levels of cortisol can lead to effects such as:
- Digestive troubles
- High blood pressure
- Problems with concentration
- Impaired memory
- Heart disease
- Muscle weakness
- Sleep issues
- Weight gain
For people with a uterus, cortisol may affect the menstrual cycle and libido. In severe cases, the overproduction of cortisol can lead to a condition called "Cushing syndrome."
Treatment For High Cortisol
While the parasympathetic nervous system should help slow the stress response and cause cortisol levels to decline in the short term, it's possible for them to remain elevated even after a stressful incident. In these cases, there are ways to decrease stress and lower cortisol levels for those with regularly high stress levels. Reducing stress may involve lifestyle changes such as getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. Meditation and relaxation exercises are highly effective in reducing short-term stress and helping an individual get back to feeling healthy.
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.
People with too much cortisol may also want to engage in some self-care, taking time to help others, caring for their pets, or taking herbal supplements such as fish oil. In severe cases, such as Cushing syndrome and Addison's disease, medical treatment and intervention might be necessary to return the body to a healthier state.
Counseling For High Stress Levels
Stress can take a toll on the body and mind. 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, consider reaching out to a trusted physician or mental health professional for an assessment.
One of the common barriers to treatment for individuals experiencing copious amounts of stress is finding the time for an appointment. Speaking to a trained mental health therapist is often more convenient with online therapy. You can schedule a time that meets your needs and talk to a counselor without leaving your house. A recent study showed that brief online sessions using therapeutic methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) reduced stress levels in some individuals.
If you're interested in trying an internet-based modality, consider signing up for a platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. Once you sign up, you'll be matched with a therapist based on your personal preferences and treatment goals.
What are the side effects of too much cortisol?
Cortisol receptors can be found throughout the body, meaning that cortisol has the potential to affect nearly every organ system. For this reason, having high levels of cortisol (especially over a prolonged period) may have a wide range of effects on the body’s processes. Depending on whether the excess cortisol is caused by chronic stress or another underlying issue, these side effects may include, but are not limited to:
- Mood swings
- A weakened immune system
- Digestive issues
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble with concentration or memory
- Skin changes
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Issues with reproductive systems or growth processes
How does cortisol make you feel?
The release of cortisol is part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” process, which may lead to a variety of physical and mental sensations, such as feelings of restlessness or jitters, shakiness, anxiety, or a rapid heartbeat.
Is high cortisol good or bad?
Occasional increases in cortisol levels may not necessarily be a bad thing, because releasing cortisol is one of the body’s natural responses to a fight or flight situation. However, over prolonged periods, high levels of cortisol may lead to unwanted physical and mental side effects, as chronic stress puts strain on the body.
Having too much cortisol may also be a symptom of an underlying issue, such as a pituitary tumor or Cushing’s syndrome. If you are concerned about your levels of cortisol, it may be a good idea to speak to your healthcare provider for more information.
What causes cortisol to rise?
When your body perceives a threat, corticotropin releasing hormone is released, leading to the release of ACTH, a hormone that encourages the production of cortisol. The cortisol released then binds to glucocorticoid receptors in your cells.
However, cortisol levels may also rise in non-life-or-death situations as a response to other triggers. These might include work stress, unhealthy eating habits, or insufficient sleep.
How do you know if you have high cortisol?
The symptoms of elevated cortisol may be mental or emotional, such as anxiety, restlessness, or fatigue. High cortisol levels, especially over a sustained period, may also lead to additional symptoms like brain fog, muscle weakness, headaches, trouble sleeping, or digestive issues. Those with cortisol-related conditions, such as Cushing’s syndrome, may also experience symptoms like flushed skin, bruising, high blood pressure, unexpected weight gain, or fatty deposits on the shoulders or neck.
How do you reduce cortisol?
It may be worth noting that occasional rises in cortisol levels may be considered a normal response to threats or stressful situations. In fact, not having enough cortisol may be a symptom of underlying health problems like primary or secondary adrenal insufficiency.
However, there may also be healthy ways to manage cortisol levels and reduce stress effects. These may include getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, practicing mindfulness and meditation, and getting regular physical activity.
What foods increase cortisol levels?
Foods that may increase cortisol levels include highly processed foods, refined grains, deep-fried foods, alcohol, caffeine, and foods that are high in sugar or saturated fat.
Corticosteroid medications may also be used to increase cortisol levels in individuals with certain medical conditions, such as Addison’s disease.
Does overthinking increase cortisol?
Overthinking, or the process of repeatedly dwelling on or ruminating about certain topics, can be distressing. If the overthinking continues long enough, it is possible that it may lead to increased levels of cortisol due to its ability to induce feelings of stress and anxiety.
How does cortisol affect sleep?
Cortisol, like other hormones in the body, typically follows the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Levels of cortisol tend to be highest in the morning, which influences a person’s ability to wake up and get out of bed. However, if cortisol levels are high in the evening—for example, due to stress—then this may lead to difficulty falling asleep or lower overall quality of sleep.
How do you test for cortisol levels?
If your healthcare provider has questions about your hormone levels, they may request a cortisol test, which may be done using a sample of urine, blood, or saliva. Depending on your symptoms and situation, this test may be performed either at home, at a doctor’s office, or at a lab.
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