What is the Link Between Stress and Cortisol?
We take a look at the link between stress and cortisol. Find out how your cortisol levels can impact your health with Vitall.
Stress and Cortisol: Where’s the Link?
Our lives may not involve the same stresses and worries that our primitive ancestors had to contend with thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t mean that our lives are less stressful. Whether it is academic exams, important meetings or existential dread, we all struggle with stress from time to time.
Understanding what our stress response is and how it impacts our body is crucial. Here at Vitall we look at the link between stress and the steroid hormone cortisol and why this chemical can be both beneficial and damaging to our health.
In today’s culture, many of us lead high-pressure lives that leave us in a state of constant stress. If you feel stressed, chill out and take a look at our guide to stress and cortisol. Understand how it works and start managing your stress effectively.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone naturally produced by the body and secreted by the adrenal gland. Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” and plays a significant role in increasing your blood pressure and heart rate in what is known as a fight or flight response. This response occurs when the body is confronted with what it perceives as a threat. It causes your body to go through a series of instantaneous reactions that prepare you to deal with whatever you are confronted by.
Although the fight or flight response only occurs when faced with a major stressor, cortisol is also secreted throughout the day. For example, small amounts of cortisol are released when you exercise or wake up to regulate your blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Check if your body is under stress or over-training.
How Does Cortisol Work?
When triggered, the stress hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream by the adrenal glands. The presence of cortisol causes glucose to flood into the bloodstream and provide instant energy to the larger muscles. Cortisol also inhibits the release of insulin, which means that the glucose is available for immediate use. Stress and cortisol impact the body in several ways. Stress also causes the arteries to narrow and trigger the production of epinephrine, which works with cortisol to pump blood around your body at a much faster rate than usual. This rush of blood aims to help you confront or escape whatever threat you face.
The Positive Impacts of Cortisol
Although stress and cortisol are rarely associated with any benefits, there are a range of ways cortisol is vital for day-to-day functions. Cortisol helps regulate your metabolism, controls blood glucose levels, reduces inflammation and helps with your memory. If your body is not producing enough cortisol, you may be suffering from an illness called Addison’s disease.
Addison’s disease can be caused by a problem with the adrenal or pituitary gland. If this disease is left untreated, it can be life-threatening. We recommend that you test your cortisol levels or contact an endocrinologist. The symptoms for Addison’s disease are slow to appear and include the following:
- Skin starts to darken in certain areas
- Dizziness or nausea
- Constant feeling of fatigue
- Diarrhoea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Muscle loss
- Erratic moods
- Reduced blood pressure.
Check if your body is under stress or over-training.
Negative impacts of High Cortisol Levels
If your cortisol levels have increased due to extreme stress, you can expect them to return to normal as your hypothalamus and pituitary gland sense that your blood cortisol levels are higher than necessary. What happens, though, if your stress and cortisol levels are constantly higher than they should be? How does this impact your health?
Increased cortisol levels can impact various important bodily functions and cause you to suffer from several negative health issues. These include:
- Heart disease
- Digestion problems
- Problems sleeping
- Weight gain
- Poor memory
- Fertility problems.
If you seem to constantly suffer from elevated cortisol levels for extended periods, this can lead to a condition called Cushing’s Syndrome. This can be caused by various factors, including a tumour on the brain or a mass on your pituitary gland. You can spot Cushing’s Syndrome by looking out for the following symptoms:
- Susceptible to bruising
- Weak muscles
- Rapid weight gain
- Erratic mood swings.
How to Deal with Stress
Now, more than ever, it can seem like life is one large stressor, but the fact of the matter is that life is always going to be full of these stressful events. Therefore, it is essential to focus on how you deal with your stress and cortisol.
The challenge for most people is to identify your stressors and understand how they affect you physically and emotionally and then try different strategies to deal with them. That way, when you see a stressful situation appearing on the horizon, you will already have an arsenal of techniques that work and help you control your stress levels better. These different strategies for dealing with stress include:
- Get expert help from a professional — you can try free options like cognitive behavioural therapy.
- Look after yourself — ensure that you eat well, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.
- Practice hobbies — taking time for hobbies enables you to destress and forget about your problems.
- See friends — take time to foster meaningful relationships.
- Try relaxation techniques — yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises have been found to help reduce stress.
The feeling of pressure and stress is one of the most unpleasant feelings that most of us go through daily. Stress and cortisol have such profound impacts on our physical and emotional well-being, and it is essential to always keep them in check.
If you have been feeling stressed lately or would like to know more about your stress levels, try one of Vitalls at-home cortisol test kits. With this accurate and easy-to-understand information, you can learn to understand better how your body is dealing with stress and cortisol and take the next steps in living a stress-free or at least stress-less lifestyle.
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Article Reviewed By
Dr. Kate Bishop |Chief Scientific OfficerKate qualified with a BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham in 1999. She then went on to study for a PhD in Biochemistry, before progressing as College Research Business Development Manager. In addition to her role within Vitall she is currently the director of operations at the College of Medical and Dental Sciences.