What Is Cortisol? And Is Cortisol Good or Bad?
Everyone at one point or another has experienced a rush of energy when confronted by sudden tension or a startling situation. It can be caused by an issue as serious as a barely avoided threatening accident to something as simple as an unexpected deadline.
Most of us have probably heard or read about the hormone cortisol which coincides with the physiological reaction of fight or flight, which is a reaction in the brain that occurs when we experience an event that we perceive as stressful or frightening. This trigger activates the sympathetic nervous system and prompts an acute stress reaction.
Your adrenal glands produce and release the often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol into your bloodstream. This stimulates an increase in your blood pressure and heart rate, preparing your body to choose between an immediate fight or flee, as our ancestors have done for centuries.
Our natural ‘flight or fight’ response is a basic survival human instinct that has kept us alive for thousands of years.
While the physiological reaction of fight or flight is a good example of the human body’s reaction to anxiety, stress, or fear, it doesn’t do the hormone cortisol’s role in the human body any justice.
Is Cortisol A Stress Hormone?
Even though cortisol is labeled as the stress hormone, it is actually so much more than that. Outside of regulating your stress levels, cortisol is an essential hormone that affects almost every organ and tissue in your body.
What Is Cortisol?
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers, secreted directly into the blood, traveling through your organs, skin, muscles, etc., they coordinate different functions and signals.
Cortisol is produced and released in your adrenal glands. It is also a glucocorticoid hormone, which makes it a steroid hormone. Steroid hormones are a group of hormones made almost exclusively in the adrenal glands that act as chemical messengers in the body and regulate many physiologic processes in the body.
However, glucocorticoids (like cortisol) are a different type of steroid hormone. They have been shown to have incredible anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive actions. Glucocorticoids work with your immune system in helping treat a plethora of health problems in your muscles, fat, liver, and bones.
Cortisol increases the availability of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream and substances that mend tissues, and it enhances our brain's use of glucose. It also collaborates with parts of your brain to manage mood, motivation, and fear.
Throughout the waking day and night, cortisol works to maintain your blood glucose and subdues nonvital organ processes to provide energy for your brain.
Cortisol is an essential hormone that plays many important roles and is involved in the regulation of many functions, including:
- Stress response regulation.
- Aiding the body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
- Inflammatory response.
- Regulating blood pressure and blood sugar.
- Metabolic regulation.
- Sleep-wake cycle regulation.
- Nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems regulation.
- Reproductive systems function.
Cortisol levels are continuously monitored in the body to maintain steady levels or scientifically called homeostasis.
Balanced regular levels of cortisol are important for regulating many functions in your body and small doses of this hormone may even heighten memory and protect your immune system.
While the role cortisol plays in the body is incredibly important, higher or lower than average cortisol levels can be very dangerous.
Unfortunately, in our modern and fast-paced world, most of us are constantly under stress. We rush to work, we get caught in traffic, our boss yells are us for being late, we have impossible deadlines to finish, or even support a toxic friend or family member who just keeps letting us down. Many of us are constantly under high stress.
Too Much or Too Little of a Good Thing… Is A Bad Thing
The constant pressure of our 21st century day-to-day lives can be very overwhelming, so much so that stress and anxiety cases are on the rise. Anxiety increased from 5.12% in 2008 to 6.68% in 2018. And since COVID-19 these numbers have gotten even worse. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression.
To understand your stress, we must first consider how biologically talking and according to the American Psychological Association, there are multiple types of stress:
- Acute Stress: This type of stress is usually brief and the most common and safest type of stress. Acute stress symptoms develop quickly but don’t tend to last long. This reaction typically occurs after an unexpected life crisis and as a response to reactive thinking. For example, situations that can cause acute stress would be a sudden deadline or the shock of someone almost snatching your bag.
- Chronic Stress: Chronic stress is long-term and constant stress (without relief) that can severely affect your health if left untreated. For example, feeling consistently unhappy in a relationship, working under stress, or living with chronic pain can all cause chronic stress.
- Episodic (Acute) Stress: Episodic acute stress refers to consistent and frequent bouts of acute stress. This will usually occur when someone is impacted by consecutive stressors or routinely concerned about experiencing a future negative event or situation. Generally, episodic acute stress is common in people who are disorganized, naturally anxious, or irritable.
The steroid hormone cortisol is released in your body when you experience all three of these varieties of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
High Levels of Cortisol
However, when it comes to the negative effects of cortisol, episodic acute stress and chronic stress are the most dangerous types of stress. After danger, sudden concern, and pressure pass, your cortisol levels should lower, and your blood pressure and other affected body systems return to normal.
But if you’re frequently stressed, your body’s alarm stays on.
When your entire life is consistently full of anxiety and stress, your body will be forced to continuously pump out cortisol, causing there to be too much cortisol in your body. This can lead to many health issues, including weight gain, headaches, insomnia, digestive issues, lethargy, and even heart disease.
Sometimes too much cortisol can cause Cushing syndrome. Caused by severe overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands, Cushing syndrome causes high blood pressure, bone loss, and, in rare cases type 2 diabetes.
While it isn’t as common as high levels of cortisol, your body can also sometimes make too little cortisol, and that is still just as hazardous to your health as too much cortisol. Having lower-than-normal cortisol levels is considered adrenal insufficiency and is often called Addison’s disease.
Some of the symptoms of lower-than-normal cortisol levels include weight loss, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, and low blood pressure. Low levels of cortisol are usually treated by prescription from a doctor.
How To Control and Lower Cortisol Levels?
Hopefully, you now have the big picture of how cortisol levels affect our overall bodily functions. Optimum cortisol is necessary for life and maintaining consistent cortisol levels is crucial for preventing negative impacts on your health.
Of course, if you have been diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome, you’ll need to reach out for professional medical treatment. But, in general, if you’re looking to keep your cortisol levels under control, there are a few good lifestyle habits you can implement to balance or lower cortisol levels – keeping them at optimal ranges and your mood stable.
Be aware of your stressors and take steps to manage and prevent your stress. For example, some effective yet simple practices for stress relief include drinking herbal tea, getting quality sleep, meditation, therapy, and maintaining healthy relationships. These are all amazing ways to start controlling and easing stress – helping to maintain healthy cortisol levels.
If you want to discover more tips and learn more about these ways to relax both your mind and body, click here to read out article on: Natural Anxiety and Stress Relieving Techniques.
Personally, our favorite way to unwind, relax, and naturally lower cortisol levels, is sipping on a health-promoting and flavorful cup of tea. Many tea herbs have stress-relieving properties and have holistic abilities to improve energy levels, mood, and sleep. Actually, here at Wise Ape Tea, all our tea blends are adaptogenic and have incredible calming and balancing effects. We combine premium tea with adaptogenic herbs, crafted to create bright, flavorful organic wellness-driven tea combos.
What Is Your Favorite Strategy For Managing Cortisol Levels?
Let us know your thoughts on Instagram at @WiseApeCo and/or use the hashtag #WiseApeTribe and we’ll share it!
This informative article is written, by Sophia McKenzie. Sophia is head content creator and writer, for several premium websites, where her expertise lies in health, nutrition, and wellness. Her content focuses on providing and sharing doable solutions to help people truly thrive and live their happiest, healthiest, fulfilled lives.