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Cortisol: Is This Hormone Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy?

by Barbara Minton
See all TBYIL articles by Barbara Minton

(The Best Years in Life) There is plenty to be stressed out about if you are living in the modern world. In fact, stress may be the number one gross national product in America. In such an environment, it is important to keep cortisol functioning normally, because it is the hormone that has to cope with all that stress.

You've seen people with too much cortisol. They are the ones who run around like maniacs trying to achieve. The power executive and the super woman are stereotypes of people whose cortisol is too high. Cortisol is the hormone of road rage.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands. It regulates blood pressure and cardiovascular function as well as the body's use of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. The secretion of cortisol causes a breakdown of muscle protein, leading to a release of amino acids into the blood stream. The amino acids are utilized by the liver to synthesize glucose for energy. Rising levels of cortisol also spark release of energy from fat cells to be used by the muscles so you can out run a tiger or stand up to your pushy boss.

As you can see, production of cortisol increases in response to stress. It is the survival mechanism that powers fight or flight. If you ever watched the TV show 'The Hulk', you were seeing cortisol in action as a normal mild mannered guy turned green, swelled up and blew his stack over a perceived outrage. Cortisol is what allows a mother to lift up a car to save her child. Cortisol provides mental clarity, agility, swiftness of movement, and the enhanced strength and courage to see a way out of a threatening situation, whether the threat is physical or psychological. But it appears that the body was designed to use cortisol only infrequently.

The problem with cortisol is chronic stress

Chronic stress, the kind of stress so many people are experiencing today, causes the adrenal glands to continuously pump out cortisol. One of the first signs of too much cortisol is the inability to sleep, and when you don't sleep, the stage is set for degenerative diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular, but there's more to it that that.

Cortisol has been the subject of much research lately. Some of the latest findings include:

  • In patients with high cortisol, the coagulation pathway is hyperactivated as indicated by increased activity of coagulation factors. The result can be a cascade of clotting leading to stroke and death.

  • Patients with normal levels of cortisol are able to resolve issues that led to the development of inflammatory arthritis, while those with elevated cortisol are not.

  • The primary symptom of Cushing's disease is elevated cortisol production, which is associated with psychiatric and neurocognitive disorders. This disease causes brain shrinkage that does not resolve when cortisol is brought under control.

A continuous flow of cortisol can become additive when translated into feelings of power and euphoria, but adrenal exhaustion will follow. If this exhaustion becomes severe, death can occur. Symptoms of overtaxed adrenal glands are weight gain, hair loss, irritability, skin rash and acne, along with physical and mental exhaustion.

When cortisol is at a normal level, life seems easy. Stress is not a hindrance and there are no sleepless nights.

Low levels of cortisol affect mood, with anxiety and upset over things you would normally ignore. The feeling of being paralyzed between confrontation and escape is a sign of low cortisol, and so is the inability to think clearly in any stressful situation.


Aging takes a toll on cortisol

As people age, cortisol production declines, and it becomes more difficult to avoid adrenal fatigue. Older people who are unable to manage their stress for long periods of time become subject to degenerative diseases, just as those with high cortisol do. There is just no more cortisol that the adrenals can pump out, no matter how hard they try. If you are unable to bounce back after a particularly stressful physical or psychological encounter, you probably have exhausted adrenal glands, and it's time to drastically reduce the stress in your life.

Lupus, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, digestive issues, allergies, and craving salt or sugar are indications of high cortisol. Other symptoms are low libido, feeling overly stressed, confusion, difficulty breathing, and difficulty concentrating.

Weight gain is often a problem of depleted cortisol. When adrenals are fatigued from excessive cortisol production, people overeat in a play for more energy, usually going for high carb energy foods to get a quick energy spurt. But this is followed by an even greater energy sag, and the process repeats.

Learn how to achieve normal cortisol levels

In both men and women, one of the primary causes of continuous physiological and psychological stress is declining levels of other steroid hormones. Low levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone put the body under a great deal of stress. When these hormones are replaced with their bioidentical hormone replicas, the ability to sleep returns, usually even in the face of continuing exogenous stress. Bioidentical cortisol is available by prescription as a last resort for adrenal exhaustion.

It is also important to get your stress load under control. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help the body respond favorably to stress at the physiological level. Adaptogens can condition your physiology to respond to major stresses in a favorable manner.

Rhodiola is probably the best of these for handling anxiety and stress. In studies of highly stressed individuals, rhodiola created a sense of well being and reduced the harmful effects from high cortisol.

A study published this month found that adopting a yoga and meditation-based lifestyle causes reversal of markers of aging, mainly oxidative stress, telomerase activity, and oxidative DNA damage. This may not only delay aging and prolong youthfulness, but it may normalize cortisol and delay or prevent the onset of several lifestyle-related diseases, of which oxidative stress and inflammation are the main causes.

Want to learn more about cortisol and other hormones?  Many of the leading specialists in anti-aging medicine have highly informative websites.  Here are some of the best:

See also:

Testosterone is the Hormone that Makes Life Worth Living

Why Progesterone is Essential for Women and Men

Why Estrogen is a Woman's Friend, Not Her Enemy

For more information:

About the Author:

Barbara is a school psychologist and the author of Dividend Capture, a book on personal finance. She is a breast cancer survivor using bioidentical hormone therapy, and a passionate advocate of natural health with hundreds of articles on many aspects of health and wellness. She is the editor and publisher of AlignLife's Health Secrets Newsletter.

See other articles by the Barbara Minton here:

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