If you've ever researched the topic of stress, you no doubt have heard about the steroid hormone cortisol.
Its produced in the adrenal gland from cholesterol. Its involved with handling daily events and stressors, such as waking up or working out. Your day starts out with peaked levels of cortisol. Cortisol levels gradually drop as the day wraps up in the expectation that you'll now ease into a night full of restful sleep.
Cortisol is most famous for its role in the fight-or-flight response. When faced with a stressor (lets pretend its a roaring lion), cortisol helps flood the body with needed energy in the form of glucose (directed to the large muscles). During the fight-or-flight response, cortisol prevents insulin from coming out to store glucose since your body's immediate priority is to use it all up! Once the stressor is gone, hormone levels and normal bodily functions return to normal.
So, now, everything is all fine and dandy, right? Unfortunately, because of modern high-stress, fast-paced lifestyles, cortisol levels may be chronically elevated. This can wreak havoc on your body. How? Well, here are 5 reasons you want to normalize cortisol levels.
1. For the Sake of Blood Sugar Stability
Chronically high cortisol levels means glucose is constantly being produced, leading to increased blood sugar levels.
Remember the fight or flight response? During this response, cortisol inhibits insulin's effect so that cells have more glucose available. This virtually leaves cells more insulin resistant. If this consistently happens long-term, a metabolic mess can result - the pancreas is pumping out more and more insulin that the body isn't even responding to, a ton of glucose is circulating through the blood, and cells aren't even getting the energy they need.
2. To Keep Stubborn Belly Fat Away
Cortisol contributes to visceral fat storage (this is the type of fat that accumulates deep in the abdomen, surrounding organs and muscle, not fat that accumulates under the skin). This can ultimately lead to abdominal or central obesity. This type of obesity is associated with other chronic diseases - type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease.
Recently, it has been discovered that cortisol also helps fat cells develop into mature fat cells. These mature fat cells can actually produce more cortisol!
3. To Keep Appetite and Cravings Under Control
Although glucose levels are running high, as aforementioned, insulin's effect is thwarted. Cells are essentially starved of glucose. One way the body deals with this is by sending hunger signals to the brain. All of a sudden you may find yourself craving more food and overeating.
If only cortisol increased our appetite for leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables! The truth is, though, that studies show it increases cravings for high-calorie foods.
4. To Keep Digestion Running Smoothly
If we go back to the fight-or-flight scenario, we might recall that cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system - pretty much every system or function necessary to help resolve the stressful situation. The heart beats faster, breathing rate increases, pupils dilate, blood flow to the muscles increases. Your body is primed for action!
Another effect of the fight or flight response is slowed digestion. Why? Instead of being distracted by the digestive process, the body directs most or all of its attention on the perceived threat.
Therefore, if cortisol levels are always elevated, digestion suffers. Not only is absorption compromised, but indigestion and a sensitive gut can result. There may be some inflammation and irritation in the lining of the intestinal tract. The resulting inflammation in the mucosal lining of the digestive tract can produce even more cortisol.
5. Prevent Heart Disease
Going back to the fight or flight response, you may recall that cortisol increases respiration and heart rate. This way the blood and lungs can get more oxygen to act, to "flee", to protect the body from the stressor.
This means blood pressure goes up and blood vessels constrict so that oxygenated blood can be quickly delivered. For a momentarily stressful situation, this is great! It's efficient!
If this is going on for an extended period of time due to chronically elevated cortisol levels, though, vessel damage, plaque damage, and an increased risk for heart attack or stroke can result. One study showed that even those with no pre-existing heart conditions are at risk of heart disease with elevated cortisol levels.
Monitoring Cortisol Levels
Thankfully, there is a way to assess your cortisol levels. A saliva test called the adrenal stress index (ASI) can help give an idea of cortisol levels by testing adrenal function.
Now that you may have a better understanding of the science behind cortisol, you may have a greater desire to manage it. Clearly, keeping cortisol levels under control is a must! Thankfully, cortisol management techniques are not as complicated as the science behind it. Taking advantage of stress management techniques (quality and adequate sleep, physical activity, breathing exercises, and more) and a healthy diet can work wonders in that regard. Learn more in our next article!
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