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Cortisol – The Stress Hormone And Its Negative Effects On Your Health

Cortisol is a hormone that influences various aspects of the body, and stress serves as a trigger for the adrenal glands to produce cortisol
The one thing that always comes uninvited in our life is “Stress”, every individual confronts stress from occurring everyday life events like at work, relationships, and finances. Threats, shocks, arguments, scares, accidents, problems, or competition, are stressful situations that trigger our body to produce stress hormones called “Cortisol”. The release of cortisol is the body’s natural response often called a “fight or flight response”.
This “fight or flight response” is naturally designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly to the situation that arises. As the body stops perceiving the stressful situation, the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that triggers the “rest and digest” response) takes over to help the body relax and recover and tell all systems to go back to normal.
For example, imagine you want to cross the road, but as you step onto the road, a high-speed car is coming directly toward you. In this stressful scenario, your brain secretes cortisol to help you think fast and act. This is a component of the fight-or-flight response. You opt to prevent the potential accident by taking a step back and waiting for the automobile to pass before safely crossing the street. Cortisol is essential for making quick decisions in the face of acute situations.

Everything about how cortisol works in our body

In any stressful situation, our senses send a signal to the area of the brain called the amygdala (which contributes to emotional processing). After interpreting the signals, the amygdala senses the threat and sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which is an area of the brain that communicates with the rest of our body through the autonomic nervous system.

What are the two main parts of the autonomic nervous system?
The nervous system is divided into two parts, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system. The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord, whereas the peripheral nervous system includes parts of the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord. The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system and includes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The autonomic nervous system is a network of nerves throughout your body, which acts as a control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, sweating, and sexual arousal.

SNS (Sympathetic nervous system) – Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that kickstarts the body’s “flight or fight response”, preparing the body to respond to stressful events by increasing heart rate and blood flow to the muscles. SNS prepares the body for physical action, including fighting, fleeing, freezing, and engaging in sexual intercourse.

PNS (Parasympathetic nervous system) – When the body stops perceiving the stressful situation, the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that triggers the “rest and digest” response) restores the body to a calm and composed state and prevents it from overworking. PNS helps the body to relax and recover. The PNS system is activated when people are at rest, such as after eating or when relaxing. The PNS system slows down organ function, such as slowing down our heartbeat.

As the hypothalamus receives a distress signal it activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands and the adrenal glands release epinephrine hormone also known as adrenaline into the bloodstream. As adrenaline flushes through the bloodstream it brings many physiological changes like faster heartbeat, high blood pressure, high pulse rate, heavy breathing, and sharper senses.
These changes are the first response of our body in response to stress and bring many instant benefits like:
  • Better blood flow
  • More Oxygen
  • Heighten memory
  • Sharper senses
  • Lower sensitivity to pain
  • Increased nutrient flow
  • Increase your immune system
After the initial flow of epinephrine depletes, the hypothalamus activates the stress response system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is the network of the hypothalamus, anterior pituitary gland, and adrenal gland. In response to perceived stress, the hypothalamus releases a hormone called CRH (corticotropin-releasing Hormone). This CRH travels to the pituitary gland which then releases ACTH(Adrenocorticotropic Hormone). ACTH then travels to the adrenal glands, which release a hormone called cortisol into the bloodstream. The result of the activation of the HPA axis is the release of cortisol also called stress hormone which is a steroidal hormone.

What are the typical cortisol levels in our bodies?

Cortisol is a hormone that regulates several biological systems and whose levels can change throughout the day. Cortisol levels often fluctuate throughout the day, with greater levels in the morning and lower levels in the evening.
Normal cortisol levels:
Morning (6-8 a.m.): 10 to 20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
Afternoon (about 4 p.m.): 3-10 mcg/dL
Evening (about midnight): 1.5-9 mcg/dL.
Cortisol levels can rise dramatically during times of stress or when the body feels a threat. However, the degree of cortisol rise during stress varies by individual. Chronic stress or long-term exposure to stimuli can cause sustained high cortisol levels.

Not only stress but other conditions can also trigger cortisol increase.

Cortisol levels can increase under various conditions, primarily in response to stressors. Here are some common situations that can lead to an increase in cortisol:
Acute Stress – The body’s “fight or flight” response to immediate threats triggers a rapid release of cortisol. This can occur during sudden and intense stressors, such as a physical threat or a highly emotional event.
Chronic Stress – Prolonged exposure to chronic stress, whether due to work, relationships, or other factors, can lead to sustained elevated cortisol levels.
Physical Exertion – Intense physical activity or exercise especially endurance training or high-intensity workouts can temporarily increase cortisol levels. That is why everyday athletes need to recover by getting proper nutrition, rest, and other recovery approaches to stay optimum.
Low Blood Glucose (Hypoglycemia) – When blood glucose levels drop, the body releases cortisol to promote the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, ensuring a stable energy supply. This is part of the body’s natural response to maintain blood sugar balance.
Caffeine Intake – Consumption of caffeinated beverages, especially in large amounts may lead to anxiety or edginess, in response to this neural excitation body can stimulate cortisol release. However, individual responses to caffeine can vary.
Illness or Infection – Cortisol levels may rise during illness or infection as part of the immune response. It helps regulate inflammation and mobilize resources to combat the threat.
Certain Medications – Some medications, particularly corticosteroids often prescribed for their anti-inflammatory properties. Can cause high cortisol levels when taken in high doses or for a long period.
Cortisol Awakening Response(CAR) – The cortisol awakening reaction refers to a natural spike in cortisol levels within the first hour of waking up. As we awaken and open our eyes in the morning, our bodies experience a natural cortisol surge which is linked to our bodies’ wake-up process. Cortisol production reaches its peak at 60 minutes after awakening, after which levels gradually start to decline or get normal. This cortisol rhythm is part of the body’s circadian rhythm, contributing to alertness and readiness in the morning.
It’s important to note that while cortisol is essential for responding to stress and maintaining various physiological functions, chronic or excessive elevation can have adverse effects on health.

When do you need to worry?

If your lifestyle is always stressful then you need to worry about your health as your body may constantly pump out cortisol which can lead to many health problems. If a person continues to experience stressors or experience them intensely, the body tends to remain in a fight-or-flight mode, and the stress response system acts negatively on health. High levels of cortisol may invite many risks of developing health conditions like:
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Cognitive problems
  • Emotional problems
  • Sleep apnea
  • Regular headaches
  • Obesity
  • Poor immunity

How do long-term stress and cortisol negatively impact our health?

The heart works harder

High cortisol levels due to long-term stress can impact heart health and promote irregular heart rhythms, strokes, and heart attacks. Although, cortisol is a good hormone that helps our body in stressful situations, but if an individual’s exposure to stress continues for the long term then cortisol acts adversely and becomes alarming.
Stress can cause a steep rise in blood pressure and it’s a normal physiologic response, but chronic stress is a risk factor. Sustained and uncontrolled high blood pressure leads to imminent complications causing damage to your heart and blood vessels over time.

Airways in the respiratory system constrict

Sometimes when people experience stress their heart starts racing, their airways compress and they find themselves gasping for air. It is because the muscles in your respiratory system that help you breathe constrict or tighten. Chronic stress or trauma may increase a person’s risk of developing stress-induced asthma and put them at a higher risk of asthma attacks in these situations. In addition, stress can lead to hyperventilation (rapid breathing).

Contribute to developing endocrine disorders

When the body is under stress it produces hormones like cortisol and epinephrine causing the liver to produce and release more energy for fight or flight response. But with chronic stress, if this extra glucose keeps on firing day after day our body may develop serious endocrine disorders. If stress doesn’t go away it can keep your blood sugar levels high and put you at higher risk of diabetes complications. In the long run, stress can contribute to developing endocrine disorders like graves disease, gonadal dysfunction, diabetes, and obesity and may worsen pre-existing endocrine conditions.

Grapple with a range of negative emotions

In an attempt to cope with stress individuals may turn to unhealthy habits like overeating, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption. These behaviors may provide a temporary escape or distraction from the stressors at hand and offer a momentary sense of pleasure. However, the desire for immediate relief contributes to the adoption of these habits which can also promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries, obesity, and hypertension over time.

Abnormal functioning of the digestive system

As the body’s stress response is activated it may speed up intestine movements leading to loose stools or diarrhea. The stress response can redirect blood flow away from the digestive system to other important organs which can lead to nausea or vomiting. Stress hormone release can also exacerbate underlying digestive problems which in turn cause inflammation, constipation, and worsening of the disease. Also, stress can cause you to “stress eat” (overeat, under-eat, or eat foods you would not normally eat) or increase your use of tobacco or alcohol, all of which can lead to heartburn or acid reflux.

Weight gain

Elevated cortisol levels can alter eating habits, generally resulting in an increased appetite and desire for highly appealing foods like fat and sugar. This behavior is connected with stress-induced overeating, which contributes to weight gain and may lead to abdominal obesity. Stress-induced eating patterns have been linked directly to changes in body mass index (BMI). Cortisol also accelerates fat and glucose metabolism, resulting in a burst of energy in your body. However, unused energy can be retained in the body as fat, resulting in weight increase.

Linked to musculoskeletal pain

You may feel this one for sure, any stressful situation and your head starts aching, your body starts aching, and it perceives like there is no life, strength, and energy in you. The cause of aching is muscle tension and it’s like a reflex reaction to stress, understand that it’s the body’s way of guarding you against stress. Stress causes the muscles to contract, and the tension that causes muscles makes them feel stiff, achy, and painful. With sudden stress onset muscles automatically tense up and release when stress is gone. But a constant state of stress makes your headaches worsen turning into migraines and body aches into a constant everyday affair followed by joint pain too.

Sexual and reproductive health concerns

Decreased libido, infertility, low levels of reproductive hormones, erectile dysfunction or impotence, irregularity and flow of the menstrual cycle, discomfort during sex, hot flashes, sleep problems, and many more. Chronic stress is a disaster that exerts an inhibitory effect on the productive system of human beings and causes reproductive dysfunction. Chronic stress, ongoing stress over an extended period can even shut down the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal (HPG) axis, which controls the reproductive system.

Significant impact on the nervous system

The nervous system acts as the command center for the body and guides the body’s movement, thoughts, and senses. Raised cortisol levels due to chronic stress can develop abnormalities in how particular brain circuits function, it can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters and even become a cause of neuropathy (a condition characterized by damage or dysfunction of the peripheral nerves). High cortisol levels also affect emotional senses which leads to depressive symptoms, feelings of anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anger, sadness, and irritability.

Disrupted sleep

Cortisol and sleep have a bidirectional relationship, which means that one can exacerbate the other. Individuals with high cortisol levels may struggle to fall asleep, resulting in repeated awakenings during the night and an overall disturbed sleep experience. This interrupted sleep and long-term sleep deprivation in turn increases stress hormones, producing a negative loop. The consequences of sleep disruption go beyond inconvenience, contributing to illnesses such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and obstructive sleep apnea.

Frequently asked questions on cortisol

Yes, your cortisol blood level can be measured in three ways, these cortisol tests help diagnose disorders of the adrenal gland.
Symptoms of high cortisol levels may include weight gain, high blood pressure, slow metabolism, and mood changes.
Managing cortisol levels involves stress reduction techniques, adequate sleep, regular exercise, a balanced diet, stopping smoking, and taking supplements.
A condition characterized by high levels of cortisol for a long time is called Cushing’s syndrome. When the adrenal gland overproduces cortisol, can lead to symptoms like weight gain and fat storage particularly in the abdominal area.
A condition characterized by low levels of cortisol is called Addison’s disease. Condition in which your adrenal glands don’t produce sufficient cortisol can lead to symptoms like fatigue and weight loss.

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