Cortisol – Part 2: How it Works

“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. ‘Blorft’ is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants

Can you relate to the above post? Are you overwhelmed with life, but you just keep going, pushing onward through the stress even though you can feel its wear and tear on your body? The amount of stress that we put ourselves through is astronomical in the Western world and, what’s even crazier, is that it’s largely unnecessary. Even though stress and busyness is considered normal, sometimes even praiseworthy, that constant stress will come back and bite you in the ass.

As previously discussed in Cortisol – Part 1: the Stress Hormone, cortisol is a hormone that the pineal gland generates to help the body cope during extremely stressful situations, like fighting off a rabid dog. However, if cortisol levels remain too high for too long, the body may become unable to regulate cortisol in its system.

Before I talk about what you can do to manage your cortisol levels, I wanted to discuss how cortisol actually effects the body. This way you can see that it is an essential hormone, but also one that can cause a lot of problems if our stress levels run rampant. Please read below to find a general overview on the impact of cortisol on the body system.

  • Cortisol can inhibit insulin from moving glucose (sugar) into the cells, which raises the level of glucose in the bloodstream. Naturally this can cause blood sugar imbalances, which may lead to hypo- or hyperglycemia.
  • It can partially shut down the immune system by interfering with t-cell production and function. Because of this, you can become more susceptible to illness. If you find yourself frequently catching a cold or flu, this may be why.
  • It can inhibit the uptake of amino acids into muscle cells and inhibit bone function and calcium absorption, which can decrease bone density and muscle mass.
  • Cortisol can make the body more sensitive to epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). This can cause vasoconstriction (constriction of the blood vessels), which will increase blood pressure and heart rate.
  • It can interfere with the production and function of thyroid hormones causing your thyroid to work too hard (hyperthyroidism) or not hard enough (hypothyroidism).
  • It can increase gastric acid production in the stomach, which can cause acid reflux, digestion issues, and intestinal problems.
  • It can interfere with fertility and pregnancy, which can make it difficult to conceive and may interfere with the health of your baby.
  • It can interfere with your metabolism and this can cause intense hunger, food cravings, and an increase in abdominal fat.
  • It can have an impact on the hippocampus in the brain, which can throw off your emotions, inhibit your memory capacity, and cause cognitive impairment.
  • Cortisol is naturally released in your body during the morning hours to wake you up. However, if you have an imbalance, cortisol may be released at night time. This can cause insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
  • Because of the general impact of cortisol in your system, it can cause fatigue from lack of sleep and an overworked or sluggish system.
  • Cortisol can increase in testosterone, which can cause high blood pressure, increase in body fat, an increase in estrogen, mood swings, water retention, & more.

If you were in a survival situation, most of the side effects of cortisol would be very helpful. If we go back to my rabid dog scenario, it makes a lot of sense that your body would need an increase in adrenaline to either get you fighting or running away from said dog and a decrease in metabolism, which would not be a very helpful function in the moment. However, as you can see, prolonged stress can have quite a toll on the body. Without proper management, cortisol can do more than make you anxious. It can have a huge impact on your physical and mental health.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering what you can do to decrease your stress and normalize your levels of cortisol. Well, you’ll just have to wait for my final installment: Cortisol – Part 3: Healing Your Body.

Until then, hang out with a dog (which is scientifically proven to reduce stress), go to bed early, and listen to this 5 minute mindfulness meditation!

♥ Michaela

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