Have you ever felt like your stress is stressing you out? In our current day and age, many of us live extremely busy lives, while also piling on additional stressors such as a lack of sleep, over-exercising, over-caffeinating, and even social comparison.
Believe it or not, your body is doing a lot of work behind the scenes when it is under all of that stress. Signs and symptoms of stress can come in many different forms, whether it stems from losing a job, fighting with a loved one, or being chased by a bear, the body views all of these as a stressor. Regardless of the stressor, the body’s stress response is triggered by various hormones and nerves in the body. Cortisol is one of these important stress hormones.
The steroid hormone cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which are located on the top of each kidney. Cortisol is released in response to daily events such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute or sudden stress. While the release of cortisol is a perfectly normal function, it does have a systemic impact on the body.
Cortisol is part of the fight-or-flight response and temporarily suppresses non-essential functions such as the immune response and digestion. Additionally, it increases energy production, inhibits insulin production, and narrows blood vessels to aid the body in responding to the stressor. These imbalances are meant to be temporary and ideally resolve once the stressor is eliminated.
For example, if you were being chased by a bear, that stressor would trigger the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. Subsequently, cortisol would then begin to supply your body with glucose from the liver to use as an immediate energy source so that you can run from the bear. Cortisol also inhibits insulin production in order to keep the glucose from being stored so that it can be used immediately. Additionally, arteries are narrowed and the heart rate increases so that blood can pump faster and harder. Once the bear has run in the opposite direction, the hormone levels can then return to normal.
As you can see, this mechanism is designed to help get you through a sudden, stressful situation and we all will have high cortisol from time to time. However, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, it can have a negative impact on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
Conditions impacted by high cortisol:
Blood Sugar Imbalance and Diabetes: As mentioned earlier, the release of cortisol triggers the release of stored glucose from the liver. This is meant to supply the body with energy to temporarily handle the stressor. However, when cortisol is elevated for long periods of time, the chronic elevation of glucose could potentially increase a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, another function of cortisol is to suppress the effect of insulin which in turn keeps glucose in the bloodstream. This increased need for insulin can be difficult for the pancreas to keep up with and therefore lead to continued high levels of glucose in the bloodstream.
Weight Gain: This continuously elevated blood glucose paired with the suppression of insulin function can lead to cells that are without energy. When our cells need more energy (glucose), one way your body can deal with that is by sending hunger signals to your brain. This can potentially lead to stress eating or overeating and in turn, the excess glucose would be stored as body fat. Additionally, studies have found a connection between chronically elevated cortisol levels and an increase in appetite and subsequently, an increase in calories consumed.
Immune System Suppression: As part of the fight-or-flight response, cortisol suppresses the immune system so that the body can focus on the critical stressor at hand. Since cortisol is inherently anti-inflammatory, chronically elevated cortisol levels can cause the immune system to become compromised due to its efforts to reduce inflammation. With the immune system compromised, you could be more susceptible to colds and a variety of other illnesses.
Gastrointestinal Problems: Remember, while cortisol levels are elevated, any function that is not immediately essential is temporarily suppressed,including digestion. Optimal digestion happens when we are in rest and digest mode, under the parasympathetic nervous system. Since cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system is shut down. This means that if you are eating while under high levels of stress, digestion and absorption may become compromised.
Again, having high levels of cortisol from time to time is completely normal! It is when the stress is unmanaged and chronically elevated that it can potentially have negative health implications. When it comes to preventing these negative health outcomes, managing your stress is crucial. Whether it’s adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, implementing coping mechanisms, or simply reducing the overall stressors in your life, there are ways to protect yourself.
What comes next?
Did you know that your genes can also help you get a better understanding of what stressors you are more likely to respond to as well as how you are likely to respond? GenoPalate is excited to soon be offering genetic insights on your stress triggers and responses with even more detailed information on how these can impact your overall health and what you can do about it. By gaining a deeper understanding of how your genes impact your stress as well as small but effective ways to optimize your foods and dietary habits, you can begin to protect your body from the negative impact of stress and even potentially improve your overall mood and stress levels.
- “Cortisol - Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy.” Today's Dietitian, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml.
- Thau, Lauren. “Physiology, Cortisol.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 Feb. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/.
- Epel ES;McEwen B;Seeman T;Matthews K;Castellazzo G;Brownell KD;Bell J;Ickovics JR; (n.d.). Stress and body shape: Stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosomatic medicine. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11020091/.
- Epel E;Lapidus R;McEwen B;Brownell. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: A laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Retrieved October 6, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11070333/.
- Morey J;Boggero I;Scott A;Segerstrom S. Current directions in stress and human immune function. Current opinion in psychology. Retrieved October 8, 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/.