What Is Cortisol?
The cortisol definition is, a steroid hormone, categorized in the glucocorticoid hormones class. It is manufactured by the adrenal cortex in your adrenal gland. It is among the body’s stress hormones and it’s majorly involved in the fight-or-flight response. Its release is triggered by low blood-glucose and stress. It is an essential life sustaining hormone necessary for the body’s homeostasis. Dictionaries define hydrocortisone as cortisol medication used to treat inflammation.
Functions of Cortisol
Majority of body cells contain cortisol receptors. The hormone functions differently depending on the particular body cells it is acting on. Its functions include the following.
- Regulates blood sugar levels
- Supports metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrates
- Activates the central nervous system
- Controls water and salt balance
- Suppresses your immune system
- Regulates blood pressure
- Influences the formation of memories
- Lowers the formation of bones
- Supports the tone and contraction of the heart and blood vessels
- Acts as an anti-inflammatory
- Supports the development of fetus
The Timing and Regulation of Cortisol Levels
The hormone levels fluctuate throughout the day and night. The hormone’s release timing is linked to your daily activities. If you operate during the day, the levels reach their peak at 8 am, falling during the day, and are at their lowest at 4am. In people who work night shifts, the cortisol release pattern is reversed. As a response to stress, your body generates extra stress hormone to support the body’s response.
Its secretion is controlled by the adrenal gland, the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in the brain. These three inter-communicating body regions are known as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Low cortisol levels cause cells in the hypothalamus to produce corticotrophin-releasing hormone. This stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone to the bloodstream.
The adrenal glands detect a rise in adrenocorticotropic hormone, which promotes cortisol production causing blood levels to rise. As the blood hormone levels increase, they hinder the production of corticotrophin-releasing hormone and adrenocorticotropic hormone. This results in a decline in adrenocorticotropic hormone levels. Blood cortisol levels then start to drop.
Factors that lower levels of the hormone include, music therapy, laughing and humor, regular dancing, massage therapy and Ashwagandha root extract. Other factors are practicing relaxation techniques, magnesium supplementation, Soy-derived phosphatidylserine, Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C high-dosage treatment.
Factors that increase stress hormone levels include sleep deprivation, stressful events or severe trauma, caffeine, excessive drinking, and anorexia nervosa. Viral infections, prolonged or intense aerobic exercise and hypoestrogenism also result in elevated levels.
Cortisol Levels and Chronic Stress
Under normal circumstances, the body usually self regulates its hormone levels. Once a threat is no longer apparent, the hormone levels go back to normal and your body systems resume their activities. During chronic stress, stressful factors are always present and cortisol levels stay high because your body persistently feels under attack.
When your stress-response system is activated in the long term, with constantly high stress hormone levels your body processes can be disrupted resulting in ill health. When cortisol is released, the hormone blocks all body actions considered detrimental or unnecessary to the response. It suppresses the digestive and reproductive system, growth processes, and alters your immune system response.
Excessive or reduced stress hormone levels result in health problems such as anxiety, digestive problems and sleep problems. You may experience memory impairment, heart disease, depression and weight gain. Over an extended time, high cortisol levels can result in Cushing’s syndrome.
High Cortisol Symptoms
High cortisol symptoms manifest in the following ways.
- High blood pressure
- Increased frequency of urination and thirst
- Rapid weight gain around the chest, face and abdomen areas
- Decreased bone density and muscle mass
- Imbalances in the body’s blood sugar levels
- Irregular and infrequent monthly periods or amenorrhea
- Lack of sex drive
- Lowered immune function and delayed wound healing
- Weakened cognitive performance
- Compromised thyroid function
- Sleep disturbances
- Mood swings manifesting as anxiety or irritability
Chronic low cortisol levels are also harmful to your body. Addison’s disease is a condition resulting from low cortisol. The onset of symptoms is gradual and includes the following.
- Low blood pressure
- Reduced immune function
- Impaired thyroid function
- Disruption in sleep patterns
- Morning and mid-afternoon fatigue
- Muscle weaknesses and dizziness on standing
- Mild depression and brain fog
How to Lower Cortisol Levels
Cortisol levels can be lowered naturally by altering your current diet, incorporating an exercise routine, and addressing your sleep and stress levels. Consider trying out the following strategies.
- Switch to an anti-inflammatory diet. Such a diet consisting of whole foods will balance your sugar levels and lower cortisol. This diet will also keep you healthy, because it is high in essential nutrients, antioxidants and low in processed foods.
- Manage and reduce your stress levels continually before they get out of hand. This can be done by practicing meditation and deep breathing exercises. You can try out acupuncture and spend quality time enjoying nature.
- Incorporate exercise into your daily schedule. Regular exercise lasting half an hour to an hour a minimum of 4 days a week is ideal. It has been proven to balance hormones, help you sleep better, manage stress and support normal metabolic functions.
- Sleep more. Obtaining enough sleep is essential to control your cortisol levels. To balance your hormones and reset your circadian rhythm, aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
- Adding herbs and superfoods to your diet can result in low cortisol levels. Adaptogen herbs can help you lower stress hormone levels by reducing inflammation, lowering fatigue, balancing hormones and stabilizing blood sugar and blood pressure.
The Cortisol Test
To measure blood cortisol, a cortisol test may be conducted. It helps identify problems with the pituitary or adrenal glands function. The test can also help in the diagnosis of Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease.
Since the hormone levels fluctuate throughout the day, the test’s timing is essential. The test will be conducted in the morning if you are suspected to have low cortisol. If you have high levels, the test will be done in the afternoon and evening.
High cortisol levels indicate too much Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) released from your pituitary gland, presence of a tumor in the adrenal gland, or another body part involved in stress hormone production. Low cortisol levels signal Addison’s disease or hypopituitarism.
The test is affected by stress, pregnancy, low blood sugar, taking a radioactive scan a week to the test, eating and exercising before the test and low blood sugar. Other tests that can determine pituitary gland or adrenal glands function are dexamethasone suppression tests and ACTH stimulation test
It is important to monitor your cortisol levels because high levels are linked to chronic stress which is a source of several diseases. Stay happy, exercise more and eat healthy.
This is a complicated issue and if you suspect you have a cortisol issue seek expert medical care and receive the appropriate testing to clarify your situation.
Author: Esateys Stuchiner
Esateys (pronounced Ee sáh teez) is an International Life Transformational Speaker, Author, Master Facilitator, Life Coach and Expert in the Human condition. She is a Nationally and Board Certified Nurse Practitioner. For over 30 years, she has practiced, taught and lectured extensively in the allopathic and alternative medicine field.
Esateys is known for her groundbreaking work in the areas of personal empowerment and health restoration using mindset and inner connection as the catalyst for all change.
Esateys describes herself as the ‘Architect of the New You’ and has dedicated her life and professional career to helping her clients create “New Beginnings” by facilitating self empowerment, economic freedom and restored health.
For more information, go to esateys.com.