What is cortisol?
Cortisol is the primary glucocorticoid hormone that is secreted from the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex. Glucocorticoids are a type of steroid hormone found in most tissues of the human body, and they play a crucial role in our immune system. Essentially, hormones act as messengers, relaying information to various organs and systems in our body. If you would like to learn more about hormones and the female endocrine system, this material can provide valuable insights.
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis controls the production of cortisol. This feedback loop has three stages:
- The hypothalamus releases a hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland, which secretes corticotropin;
- Corticotropin activates the adrenal glands, which produce adrenocorticotropic hormone;
- Adrenocorticotropic hormone stimulates the release of cortisol into the bloodstream.
This feedback loop ensures that stress hormone levels remain at the appropriate level. When the HPA axis is functioning correctly, cortisol levels rise and fall naturally throughout the day.
Cortisol is a critical hormone that plays a vital role in regulating many physiological processes in the body, including metabolism, immune function, and the sleep-wake cycle. When cortisol is not properly regulated, it can lead to disorders such as Cushing’s syndrome or Addison’s disease.
Here are the top of the important facts to keep in mind about this hormone and how to maintain its balance:
Fact 1: This hormone is essential for regulating our stress response.
During acute, chronic, or traumatic stress, cortisol is released to help keep us alert and provide the energy needed for a response. It increases blood pressure and heart rate, while also circulating blood and oxygen more actively to muscles and the brain. The immune system is suppressed during this time, which can help prevent inflammation and infection. However, when stress is too strong or lasts too long, chronically high levels of cortisol can alter the brain’s chemical composition, leading to depression and anxiety disorders that are difficult to manage alone.
Fact 2: Our ability to adapt to stress affects cortisol levels.
Although experiencing acute stress can be painful, avoiding it only prolongs the feeling of pain and reinforces chronic stress. Confrontation, on the other hand, can break the cycle of pain-fear-avoidance and promote recovery. Additionally, prolonged or exaggerated stress response can perpetuate cortisol dysfunction. While stress is inevitable in life, we can change our perception of it and our reaction to it, which can help us maintain balance and avoid chronic cortisol dysfunction. Remember, there is no success without challenges, and it’s how we adapt to them that matters.
Although it may be challenging, you do not have to face this alone. Taking steps to prevent pain from transforming into prolonged suffering demonstrates bravery and fortitude. Seeking assistance from a therapist, loved ones, or trusted friends is yet another courageous action that can aid in this process.
Fact 3: Stress hormones begin to affect us even before we are born.
One of the most sobering facts about cortisol is that our body can produce this hormone excessively due to factors beyond our control. This includes the prenatal period and childhood. For example, if a mother experiences constant stress during pregnancy or suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), her child is at a higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, social adaptation disorders, and psychoemotional problems. Elevated cortisol levels during pregnancy can alter a child’s brain, and the consequences can be felt for generations to come.
But the good news is that risk is not destiny, and prenatal development is influenced by many factors. Ongoing research is studying the brain, and cortisol does not work alone. Its synthesis involves genes and receptors that determine whether the stress hormone will even be available, even if there is an overabundance of it.
In fact, the simple act of a mother and child being together after birth significantly reduces the baby’s stress hormone levels. This enhances breastfeeding and reduces the risk of various disorders, including metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, cognitive and behavioral changes. And let’s not forget the power of love, hugs, and attention to a little one’s needs, which can also reduce cortisol levels in adults.
Fact 4: The human circadian rhythm is closely linked to cortisol levels.
The circadian rhythm is the body’s natural internal clock, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol, a hormone that helps to regulate stress, plays a crucial role in this process. Its levels peak between 6 and 9 AM, and reach their lowest point between 11 PM and 1 AM. Disrupting the circadian rhythm of cortisol, particularly by increasing its levels, can lead to a higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases and other health issues. This can happen when we work night shifts or stay up late, even if this party is such fun or these reels are fascinating.
Going to bed early and waking up at dawn is the optimal way to keep our circadian rhythm in check. This is especially important for children, as disruptions in their circadian rhythm can have long-lasting effects, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, and obesity. Parents and anyone planning to have a child should be aware of this and take steps to ensure that their child’s sleep schedule is consistent and healthy. After all, maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle is key to our overall well-being.
Fact 5: Lacking or excessing stress hormone levels can cause noticeable changes to the body’s appearance.
During short-term stress, cortisol can suppress appetite to help us respond more efficiently to threats. However, when cortisol levels remain high over a long period, it can have the opposite effect, increasing appetite and leading to the accumulation of fat, particularly in the abdominal area and between the shoulder blades. This can also result in the appearance of broad purple stretch marks on the stomach.
Conversely, if cortisol levels are insufficient, it can cause a decrease in appetite, leading to unintentional weight loss. However, it’s essential to note that a low stress hormone level may also be a sign of adrenal insufficiency. This condition can be caused by an autoimmune reaction, where the immune system attacks healthy cells in the adrenal glands for unknown reasons, a condition known as Addison’s disease. Other causes may include infection, bleeding in the adrenal tissues, an underactive pituitary gland, or a tumor in the gland. Therefore, if you’re experiencing unexpected weight loss, it’s crucial to seek medical attention.
Elevated cortisol levels have another “surprise” – specially for women – hirsutism. It is a condition where hair growth starts to occur in a male pattern, such as on the face.
Fact 6: Deficiency or an excess of cortisol can drastically alter the body from the inside out.
You may recall the adage, “Don’t worry your mom because it raises her blood pressure.” As it turns out, this isn’t just an empty threat. Elevated levels of stress hormones can indeed lead to hypertension. Conversely, a deficiency in cortisol can result in consistently low blood pressure and chronic fatigue.
Overall, the advantages of having elevated cortisol levels in the short term come at the cost of long-term harm.
Increasing blood sugar levels for a rapid energy surge can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. Transient reductions in inflammation can lead to persistent decreases in immunity. A surge of blood flow to the most vital organs for a quick reaction to danger can result in muscle weakness and even atrophy.
Furthermore, constantly elevated cortisol levels can reduce bone density, particularly in women, increasing the risk of fractures and the onset of osteoporosis.
The brain is not exempt from the negative consequences of high cortisol levels. Heightened levels of cortisol are associated with memory impairment, attention deficits, and compromised decision-making abilities. It’s no wonder that the US Navy SEALs have adopted the maxim, “In a critical situation, you don’t rise to the level of your expectations, you fall to the level of your training.” You may have experienced firsthand how difficult it is to concentrate on even the most basic tasks when you’re stressed.
Fact 7: Cortisol affects reproductive function.
Elevated levels can disrupt the menstrual cycle, causing irregular periods or even cessation of menstruation altogether. While this is a protective mechanism during times of stress, prolonged high levels of cortisol can threaten reproductive health through amenorrhea.
Another factor affecting fertility is inherent to cortisol itself. Like all steroid hormones, cortisol is synthesized from cholesterol, which is essentially the foundation of all steroid hormones. They include sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone in women and testosterone in men. During times of stress, hormone production shifts from sex hormones to cortisol.
Fact 8: Stress hormones play a pivotal role in the development of addiction.
Glucocorticoid hormones, including cortisol, are key contributors to susceptibility towards addictive behavior. Studies have shown that alcohol and nicotine lead to a rise in cortisol levels, and their chronic use disrupts the regulation of the entire HPA axis. Moreover, an inadequate cortisol response to various stressors is associated with an increased risk of addiction and relapse following smoking cessation.
Furthermore, elevated cortisol levels interfere with addiction treatment. The recent research demonstrates that patients with high cortisol are much more likely to abandon rehabilitation programs. In other words, this hormone promotes addiction and hinders its recovery.
It’s worth noting that this phenomenon extends beyond alcoholism, smoking, and drug addiction. Similar effects have been observed in gamblers, individuals with a sweet tooth, and even those who experience heartbreak due to a breakup. When our beloved abandons us, our stress response goes into overdrive, making it difficult to cope with the pain and sadness that follows. In fact, there is even a term for the latter: “Broken Heart Syndrome,” which is characterized by a surge in cortisol levels.
Fact 9: Strategies for Normalizing Cortisol Levels.
Maintaining healthy cortisol levels is crucial for overall well-being. Thankfully, there are simple and effective strategies to keep cortisol in check.
First, prioritize proper sleep hygiene. Establish a consistent sleep schedule and avoid consuming caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime. Avoid alcohol and nicotine at all, and don’t use your mobile phone just before bed. Additionally, engaging in regular low or moderate intensity physical activity can improve sleep quality and lower cortisol levels. It’s important to note that exercise should be done in the morning, as cortisol levels increase during physical activity but then decrease later on.
Breathing practices and meditation can also be useful tools before bedtime. Not only do they lower cortisol levels, but they also improve mood and help build coping skills for stress.
If you are going through the hard times, divide your pain into smaller parts and get rid of guilt, shame, and resentment. These negative thought patterns increase cortisol and prolong stress. Work towards forgiveness and acceptance. This can help alleviate stress and reduce cortisol levels. Finally, don’t hesitate to end relationships with individuals who worsen your condition or contribute to your unhappiness.
Healthy diet and emotions
Surround yourself with people who genuinely love and care about you. Seek out positive individuals who lift you up, and always make time for laughter and self-appreciation. Take note of the things that bring joy to your life, no matter how small, and try to include them in your daily routine. Research shows that having a dog can significantly reduce cortisol levels, so consider adopting a furry friend. There are numerous therapeutic benefits to owning other pets that can help during difficult times.
Plus, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is crucial, along with drinking plenty of clean water. Consuming a diet high in sugar, refined grains, and saturated fats can increase stress hormones levels. A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and polyunsaturated fats can help regulate your cortisol.
If you’re going through a challenging time, remember that there are proven methods that can help. Check out this article for more information.
Fact 10. In conclusion.
While cortisol and stress undoubtedly play an important role in our lives, they are just a part of the many factors that can impact our health.
Life is complex and at the same time, it is a great adventure. Cortisol helps us live it with our eyes wide open. But it’s only up to us whether they are filled with joy or suffering.
At the Women’s Health School, we firmly believe that developing an understanding of our bodies and the processes within them is key to leading a fulfilling and mindful life.
A happy woman is healthy and educated!
For women’s health, body, physiology, and pleasure, there are also Natalia Silina original courses like A girl becomes a woman, All about you. What it’s like to be a Woman, All about you 35+.
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You can always choose your doctor at the Lior Medical Center.
Authored by journalist Maria Zavialova and curated by Dr. Natalia Silina, PhD, a gynecologist-endocrinologist and the founder of the Women’s Health School educational project, all content published on the Women’s Health School website has undergone rigorous review.