Cortisol: The Stress Coping Hormone. (Understanding Stress Response and Adrenal Health)
by Max Wettstein, Copyright 2012
There has been much buzz about the hormone Cortisol lately, mostly seen on infomercials selling supplements claiming to block Cortisol. Whether or not these supplements block Cortisol or help support fat loss around our midsections is not the intent of this article. What I will discuss here are the essential functions of Cortisol and when and why it is secreted by our adrenal glands, and, how you can keep your levels normal by better managing your stress and your diet. Just to be clear early on, your goal should not be to block Cortisol but rather to normalize levels.
The adrenal glands are sometimes known as the ‘stress’ glands, and Cortisol is one of several stress response hormones produced by the adrenal glands. It is true that chronic, elevated levels of Cortisol can cause fat storage around the midsection and the sides of the face, among many other negative health effects, but in normal levels Cortisol is actually beneficial for inflammation control, energy production, preventing an overactive immune system (keeping allergic reactions in check), and increasing mental focus factor, and extremely low levels of it are more dangerous than slightly elevated levels. In fact without the hormone Cortisol, we would be unable to adequately cope with physical or emotional stress, and we would eventually die. Consider how many anti-inflammatory, Cortisol-mimicking drugs are in use these days, such as corticoid steroids, (Prednisone), cortisone shots, and hydrocortisone creams. Cortisol is also an essential hormone in setting the sleep/wake cycle, along with melatonin, also known as your circadian rhythm
As usual, some background physiology is in order here. The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys and are automatically controlled by the Autonomic, (involuntary), nervous system. The adrenal glands manufacture many hormones, including sex hormones, DHEA, Cortisol, Adrenalin (Epinephrine), and Noradrenalin (Norepinephrine), among others. Both physical or emotional stress of any degree, activate the sympathetic nervous system, sometimes described as the “fight-or-flight” stress response, via the Hypothalamus and the Pituitary gland to activate production in the adrenal glands of adrenalin, noradrenalin, Cortisol, and Aldosterone. Adrenalin and Noradrenalin are what cause most of the physical symptoms of stress, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, shallower breathing, increased perspiration, etc. Cortisol in this stress-response scenario, mobilizes energy reserves and increases glucose, (blood sugar), by releasing fatty acids and glycogen stores from the liver into the blood stream. Glycogen, fatty acids and even amino acids are all converted into glucose through a process known as glucogenesis. In sequence of events, insulin is also released from the pancreas to move all of this glucose from the blood stream into the cells for energy production. Glucose is also what fuels our brains. Cortisol also suppresses inflammation and boosts the immune system in short term stress response scenarios. This stress response occurs in varying degrees, in a matter of seconds to prepare you for fight or flight, so to speak, whether you’re at the gym, handling an emergency in the cockpit, or watching a good football game. Our adrenal glands unfortunately can not tell the difference between physical stress and emotional stress, and respond the same physiologically to both. However, overtime the body handles physical stress much better than emotional stress, as the latter tends to keep cortisol levels elevated for too long. Furthermore, in an emotional stress situation, you simply do not need all of the glucose that cortisol has mobilized and dumped into your bloodstream, and as a result, this excess glucose may be stored as fat if not utilized for energy.
So we know Cortisol plays an essential role on stress response. But Cortisol also has many other positive functions not related to stress. Cortisol is secreted diurnally, almost opposite in cycle to melatonin, and is what wakes us up in the morning, and helps us to feel alert in the morning hours. There are many of us who need that first cup of coffee right away, before we can feel fully awake and alert. This is because the caffeine in the coffee is activating you sympathetic nervous system – your adrenal glands – increasing your Cortisol and Adrenalin levels. At normal levels, in an average healthy person, Cortisol levels slower taper off throughout the afternoon and evening, with spikes in levels after eating and with exercise, or with a caffeinated beverage. These peaks are normal and help regulate your blood sugar levels, working in tandem with insulin to transport glucose into the cells. Cortisol continues to act as an anti-inflammatory all day long, preventing and removing redness and swelling in nearly all tissues, and acting as an antihistamine to allergens. Cortisol also regulates sodium and potassium levels, keeps white blood cells and lymphocytes in check, (prevents overreaction by the immune system), and helps us maintain mental clarity and focus. These are some of the many essential benefits of Cortisol when secreted in normal levels.
What can develop over extended periods of time, due to sleep deprivation, caffeine/stimulant abuse, chronic exposure to stressful situations, a poor and imbalanced diet, lack of exercise, illness, toxins, or a combination of any of these, is chronic elevated levels of Cortisol, which ironically has an opposite and harmful effect, such as suppressed immune system, inflammation, and fatigue. Basically whenever your sympathetic nervous system is constantly triggered – you are constantly activating your fight-or-flight stress response – you are a being exposed to chronically elevated levels of the adrenal hormones, including Cortisol. Again, elevated Cortisol is good when you are in the gym, or dealing with a dire crisis, but not when you’re trying to commute across country during winter IROPs for example. If you think you may be living a lifestyle that is too stressful, you can do plenty to take corrective action. If you don’t change anything, over long periods of time, say a few years, you could progress into a much more serious condition known as Adrenal Fatigue, or worst case, Addison’s disease, which is the name for severe adrenal insufficiency, or failure. All of these mean severe low levels of adrenal hormones, to the point where you are almost unable to function normally.
What you can do to support your adrenal glands and maintain healthy levels of Cortisol: Obviously avoid stressful situations as much as you can, which is practically impossible, so change the way you deal with stress. Exercise regularly, to normalize levels of Cortisol, insulin, glucose, growth hormone, and thyroid, among many other countless benefits. Get a good night’s sleep, or take a nap. Strive for balanced eating, meaning complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats, eaten in smaller portions more frequently throughout the day, to help normalize insulin levels. All of these suggestions are starting to sound real familiar, aren’t they? There a few specific vitamins which especially support adrenal function, such as vitamin C, all B vitamins known collectively as B Complex, but especially Pantothenic Acid, Niacin, B6 and B12. Mineral support is crucial, especially Calcium, Magnesium, and Zinc.
Prohormones are also available non-prescription, such as DHEA and Pregnenalone. DHEA is normally produced by the adrenal glands and can do wonders in helping to restore a fatigued adrenal system. In fact, many of the “Cortisol-Blocking” supplements on the market today contain DHEA. Both these prohormone supplements can be converted by the liver into many other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. This should serve as a warning to you. You should not consider taking any prohormone supplement; even it is over-the-counter without doing your own research or discussing it with a doctor. All Prohormone supplements need to be cycled off of after a few weeks, so that your own body’s production is not suppressed. Lastly, the body's most abundant amino acid, Glutamine, can be taken in the form of L-Glutamine to help regulate, or "block" cortisol and it's receptors.
Remember, Cortisol is not the enemy, no matter what all of those infomercials are telling you, and it is going to take a lot more than a magic pill to get rid of that ‘spare tire’. In fact most belly fat or visceral fat is related to a combination of aging and lifestyle factors collectively known as 'Metabolic Syndrome' or 'Syndrome-X', and also to lower levels of Growth Hormone which is a major player in maintaining lean-body mass and tissue regeneration.
Sources: Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by J.L. Wilson, N.D., D.C., Ph.D.
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