With all the emphasis placed on stress in the past few years, causes of stress, suggestions to deal with it and the efforts to attempt to eliminate it from our lives, you might have heard about cortisol, sometimes called the ‘stress hormone.’
Cortisol occurs in our body naturally and is produced by the adrenal glands. It plays a part in your glucose level, regulating blood sugar and in how your body processes fats, carbohydrates and protein. In normal levels in the body, cortisol does good work, but when a person is constantly and acutely stressed, the body makes excess cortisol, and this can lead to health related issues including decreased immune system and inflammatory response, among others. Too much cortisol can also disrupt collagen formation. Connective tissue is made from collagen, which offers a structural support system for muscles and joints, as well as throughout the entire body. Let’s also take into consideration the mind/body connection when it comes to cortisol: A group of Hong Kong scientists performed tests showing that optimism is able to reduce cortisol levels and perception of pain more so than pessimism. Negative thoughts were found to have the ability to increase cortisol and subjective pain.
So by mastering coping skills for stress and keeping your thoughts in a positive place, you can help keep your mind and body in balance. Vitamin C can also help level out the cortisol spikes your body undergoes during extreme stress periods. Be sure to load up on dark leafy greens, oranges and grapefruits and tomatoes when you feel stressful times on the horizon. Natural treatments such as herbs are popular, too. The herb Holy Basil, or Tulsi, (sometimes seen as Tulasi) a cornerstone in Ayurveda, is effective for some people in lowering cortisol. (Always consult your doctor before using any herbal remedies.)
Another important health issue related to cortisol has to do with weight gain and in some cases, obesity. There are reports that when the body is constantly flooded with high levels of cortisol it can cause cravings for high sugar and high fat foods, leading to weight gain. Stress in general causes several factors such as insomnia and studies show lack of sleep can raise cortisol levels as the day progresses.
In his article, Lack of Sleep, Stress, Adrenals and Obesity, Byron J. Richards, a Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist, writes, ‘too much cortisol turns off fat burning gene switches in your liver, leading to obesity risk.’ He adds: ‘At the same time too little sleep causes leptin levels to drop in a way that makes you hungry, causing you to eat more. Thus, lack of sleep sets the stage for stress problems, poor mood, food cravings, and general tiredness – which in turn further disrupts your sleep. If this self-perpetuating set of circumstances is not solved then obesity is more likely and losing weight is going to be really hard.’
Cushing syndrome, or Hypercortisolism, is a disorder occurring when your body is exposed to high levels of the cortisol hormone. It can also develop if you take much cortisol or other various steroid hormones for a long period. Some individuals get Cushing Syndrome because their bodies produce too much cortisol. Symptoms to look for include bruising easily, thinning skin, weight gain, a puffy face, depression and unusual build up of fatty tissue between the shoulder blades. Medical professionals may test for Cushing syndrome through urine, saliva and blood tests. It can also be brought on by tumors in the pituitary gland or in the adrenal glands, and may require magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) for accurate diagnosis.