What is cortisol: it’s a hormone produced mainly in the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. We also produce it in our individual fat cells and the liver. Our bodies make it from cholesterol (it is a steroid based hormone). Many people think of both cortisol and cholesterol as bad.
We’ve come to know it as the “stress” hormone, because chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high and lead to many negative effects. Elevated cortisol relates to chronic stress – the feeling that life’s demands are greater than your ability to meet them.
In the 1950’s scientists first synthesized cortisol as a potent new drug family called corticosteroids. At the time, they were wonder drugs, because they stopped inflammation. Conditions like arthritis and eczema responded well. Of course, an inflammatory response is part of our immune system weaponry. These steroid drugs also shut down other parts of the immune system like T cell production. So they have a similar effect to the AIDs virus (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Doctors now treat corticosteroids as last resort drugs and only use them short term.
Like any hormone, it is just the messenger – it tells other cells and glands to carry out certain functions.
The Stress Response
When we respond to a physical or psychological stressor, cortisol releases amino acids (from muscles), glucose (from the liver) and fatty acids (from fat tissue) into the bloodstream for use as energy. Because this process depletes our immediate stores, one of the noticeable symptoms of high cortisol is increased appetite and cravings for calorie dense and salty foods.
Our bodies also use adrenalin (from the adrenal glands too) to assist us in life or death situations. This fight-or-flight response gives us the power and quick energy to fight or escape from a crisis or predators. It quickly converts stored energy into usable energy to save your life. This is a quick and dirty short-term emergency response. When your survival is at stake, nothing else matters. There won’t be a long term if you don’t survive the current threat. In our cave person days, this worked pretty well. You might need this response once every couple of weeks or for a few days. There was plenty of time to recover.
High and low levels
Our bodies produce cortisol naturally throughout the day as part of our circadian rhythm. Cortisol levels are highest between 3 and 6am and gradually decrease during the day. If levels are still high in the evening, they can disrupt your ability to fall asleep and the quality of your sleep.
This variation is important. A flat cortisol response is just as bad as chronically high or low levels overall. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Insomnia conditions often show little variation in cortisol over the day. Chronically high levels can lead to burnout – adrenal exhaustion and/or cortisol insensitivity in the similar way to insulin resistance. We become unable to respond to stress appropriately.
Ideally, cortisol levels should be higher with exercise or stress and in the morning, and lower in the evening or when relaxed.
Cushing’s syndrome shows as abnormally high levels of cortisol, with rapid weight gain, excess sweating, easy bruising and even psychological disorders like psychosis. Addison’s disease has very low levels of cortisol, with rapid weight loss, muscle weakness and pains, fatigue, dizziness, low blood pressure and mood disruption.
Cortisol and Testosterone
Research shows a link between chronically high cortisol levels with low testosterone and high testosterone with lower overall cortisol levels. In other words high testosterone = low cortisol and vice versa. This is another tool in your kit on how to increase testosterone levels – cortisol reduction.