Stress is defined as “what you feel when life’s demands exceed your ability to meet those demands”. When we encounter temporary stress (physical, mental, or emotional), our cortisol levels rise, and then appropriately fall. However, if we experience chronic or long-term stress, and we are unable to reduce those stressors, then our cortisol levels stay constantly elevated above normal levels.
Examples of our modern day stressors include: jobs, family, finances, traffic jams, deadlines, etc. Our bodies were originally programmed to handle short term stressors, but are now faced with the inability to evade or remove these chronic stressors, thus leading us “down the road” to poor health.
At first, you may experience weight gain around the waist, fatigue or a drop in energy, a few memory problems, and the lessening of your sex drive. These are actually beginning symptoms of larger problems such as; obesity, diabetes, impotence, dementia, heart disease, and even cancer among others. Other problems associated with high cortisol are loss of bone density and supression of our immune system.
The amazing thing is that all our hormones are interconnected, like a web. But, when one is out of balance, it affects all of the rest. Cortisol is just one part of this vast web whose components can work together to keep us healthy or make us sick.
What is Cortisol and What Does It Do?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone (also known as cortisone and hydrocortisone) and is produced in response to stress by the adrenal glands. It has very potent immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory properties, which are both critical to the regulation of immune system responses. Cortisol is also known to increase the concentration of glucose in the blood. Cortisol metabolism normally follows a daily 24 hour pattern or circadian rhythm. It is highest between 6-8 am to help us wake up, drops rapidly between 8-11 am, and then slowly declines until its lowest point between 12-2 am.
However, cortisol is only a good thing for certain lengths of time at certain levels.
Chronic Cortisol Elevation
As we mentioned, uncontrolled stress plays a huge part in chronic elevations of cortisol. But did you know that excessive exercise and intake of stimulants like caffeine (as little a 2-3 cups of coffee) and diet pills can also raise those levels? Inadequate sleep (less than 8 hours per night), dieting in general, injuries and surgery also cause your cortisol to rise.
An increasing concern in recent years in the U.S. is the growing number of people developing a condition termed the Metabolic Syndrome, or “Syndrome X”. Its origin is a disrupted metabolism caused by chronic cortisol elevation.
Long term exposure can also deactivate our immune system protection by causing immune cells to die. We then become more susceptible to disease and infection.
In reverse, when we experience a traumatic event in our lives, it triggers an acute burst of cortisol and can overactivate some peoples’ immune systems. This initial stimulation can lead to allergies, Asthma, and various autoimmune diseases like Lupus, Fibromyalgia and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Science does not yet know how to turn off these “switches”.
Stress, Diabetes, and Obesity
To understand the relationship between these three, you first must look at the hormones called insulin (which is produced by your pancreas). Insulin’s primary role is to regulate your blood sugar, but it also controls fat storage and muscle building. When your body is under stress however, it sends out signals to stop energy storage by telling the cells to ignore the insulin. This leads to a condition called “insulin resistance” which predisposes a person to “full-blown” diabetes.
In early stages of stress, a hormone is secreted that suppresses appetite. Later, another hormone is secreted to increase appetite. That hormone is cortisol, and it causes us to want to eat even though we’re not really hungry, thus we get fat! And to top it all off, cortisol and insulin work together to signal fat cells to store as much fat as possible. This fat accumulation is always seen in the abdominal area, which is also associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Thus… the birth of “Syndrome X”.
“Symdrome X”: (The Metabolic Syndrome)
This metabolic cascade of events is most likely to be the result of chronic stress and elevated cortisol. Of course a diet high in carbohydrates and a sedentary lifestyle will help that process along more quickly. Then insulin resistance begins, followed by the production of more and more insulin — thus starting the vicious cycle which later becomes diabetes.
As your weight increases around the middle, and your blood sugar levels rise, you will find that your blood pressure and cholesterol levels also start to climb. This combination or cluster of symptoms/conditions is what is called “Syndrome X”. What follows is far from pleasant!
“Syndrome X” leads straight into life threatening diseases such as heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.
Lack of Sleep, Insomnia and Fatigue
In 2001, new evidence was presented to the American Diabetes Association that inadequate sleep (less than 7.5 hours) or sleep deprivation (less than 6.5 hours) promotes insulin resistance.
The other issue related to sleep is how stress affects your ability to get a good night’s rest. Again the culprit is cortisol.
Insomnia and fatigue are often linked together in a vicious cycle. Stress makes it hard for us to clear our minds and relax enough to fall asleep. Not enough sleep causes us to feel fatigued the next day, which causes more stress… and around and around it goes.
Remember that cortisol increases our alertness, which we do not need when we are getting ready to sleep. If we do not get that 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night, our bodies do not get a chance to move through their normal rhythm. Since our bodies never have a chance to recover and repair the damage caused by the stress overload, long term health problems set in.
Immune Function and Cancer
We already know that severe bouts of stress tend to turn on the switch for many autoimmune diseases like Asthma, allergies, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s disease, MS, Fibromyalgia, Lupus, etc. (“An autoimmune disease is when one’s own immune system goes a little haywire and starts to attack one’s own body”). Synthetic cortisol is often prescribed to relieve some of these conditions. However, long term use of it causes the same type of tissue wasting and metabolic disturbances brought on by stress.
The constant unrelenting stress in our lives, (poor sleep habits, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, etc.) increases our risk of sickness and disease by a factor of 5-10 times! The higher the stress levels, the more likely you are to become ill. The most common is upper respiratory tract infections.
The reason for this is that Cortisol suppresses immune function, eventually causing immune system cells to die. This, in turn, causes our bodies to be unable to fight off infectious diseases and reduces our ability to destroy cancer cells. It can also accelerate the growth of certain kinds of tumors.
Anxiety, Depression, Alzheimer’s and Your Gut!
Almost everyone in today’s society suffers from a fair amount of tension, frustration, worry, and irritability. These feelings lead to chronic depression and anxiety. These changes in mood bring about heightened stress levels. More stress leads to forgetfulness and memory loss and can actually promote physical changes in the arrangement and/or death of nerve cells in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease often begins with damage to brain cells. Anxiety attacks and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are directly related to how much stress a person is under and its corresponding cortisol production. Elevated cortisol raises the risk of developing depression.
Cortisol also causes the body to shut down digestive processes and at the same time it tells us to eat more. This in turn leads to poor digestion, ulcerated stomachs, and inflamed intestines, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
So… Tell Me Some Good News!
The good news is that we can find out what your cortisol levels are through saliva testing. By learning how all your hormones are working together, you and your physician can begin to develop a plan to put your body back on the right track to good health.
Obviously, this plan must include life changing decisions. First you must make up your mind and really want to change your current lifestyle enough to significantly lower your stress. Remember, stress can be physical, mental and emotional!
Let’s start with the physical…
Are you getting enough sleep? How about exercise? What about the foods you are eating? Are all your hormones in proper balance? Are you taking the correct supplements for your age?
With regard to your prescription medications…
Are you using more than one pharmacy? Are you seeing more than one physician? Are you on multiple medications? Does your physician and/or pharmacist know about all of the supplements you are taking?
In this day and age, these questions are crucial to ask yourself because of the potential for drug-drug interactions, drug-supplement interactions and drug-condition interactions.
Now how about the mental and emotional…
Are you working long hours? Is your job very stressful? Are you getting any “play time”? Are you spending relaxing time with family and friends? If you are caring for family members with health problems, are you getting any relief or time away? What about your spiritual life? Are you active in your church? Are you taking time to meditate and/or pray regularly?
We all need to be more proactive when dealing with our long term health issues. Why do we need to wait until we get sick, we feel miserable or we get some kind of disease or life altering condition before we decide to change our habits.
Keep watching the current topics page for related articles such as: ways to manage stress, getting proper sleep, exercise choices, nutritional supplements (good and bad) and good eating habits along with a balanced diet.
Symptoms of Elevated Cortisol Levels:
- Increased appetite and food cravings
- Increased body fat
- Decreased muscle mass
- Decreased bone density
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- Mood swings (anger and irritability)
- Reduced libido (sex drive)
- Impaired immune response
- Memory and learning impairment
- Increased symptoms of PMS (cramps, etc.)
- Increased menopausal side effects (hot flashes, night sweats, etc.)
- Increased blood pressure
- Insulin resistance
Much of the information contained in this article was obtained from the book: “The Cortisol Connections”, by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. The Norton Medicine Shoppe, it’s owners and employees, and Medicine Shoppe International assume no responsibility for any outcome of applying information from this newsletter in a program of self-care or under the care of a licensed physician. If you have questions concerning your health or the application of any information contained herein, please consult a qualified healthcare professional.