Cortisol – Friend or Foe

Cortisol is a controversial topic and is often negatively associated with stress. But, we need it and it does hold benefits for our wellbeing and overall health.

Dr. Yasmin Akhunji, MD, an endocrinologist with Paloma Health, explains, “Cortisol is classically thought of as a stress hormone. When you feel fear or danger (or are sick), a section of your brain called the hypothalamus activates your fight or flight response. This calls on your pituitary gland to release a hormone called ACTH and subsequently the adrenal glands to release it.”

Cortisol does serve a sole purpose which is to keep us focused and alert in case we are threatened or if there is a harmful change in our environment. External stressors (or internal worries) trigger both adrenaline and cortisol release – these make up what is often called “fight or flight mode.”

Without this mode and without cortisol, we’d be slow to respond to threats and “danger”. When cortisol is being used, all other systems functions e.g. digestion, hibernate and allow our bodies space to focus on the problem at hand.

Benefits of cortisol:
• helps our brains make memories
• helps us concentrate and feel alert
• helps manage inflammation
• supports our metabolism
• helps manage our salt and water retention levels
• helps regulate our blood sugar levels
• in pregnant women, it is crucial to foetal development

So, what is the problem then? The answer is simple – too much of it is, like so many “good” things in life. Chocolate, sex, alcohol, exercise – it is all good for us or enjoyable, but too much of anything can unbalance us and create problems.

As you can see from the benefits, cortisol is much more than just a ‘stress’ hormone. The problems occur when we’re not in active fight-or-flight mode and cortisol production is forging ahead and building up inside us. This constant release can happen when we’re always working too hard, dealing with trauma or anxiety and stress for long periods of time, or feeling overwhelmed with life in general. It’s especially dangerous if we have no way of managing ourselves when these challenges present themselves.

Chronic high cortisol levels can result in:
• headaches and migraines
• poor concentration levels
• weight gain in the abdominal area
• acne and skin rashes
• high blood pressure
• extreme fatigue and insomnia
• weak muscles
• mood changes

When our bodies make and store too much cortisol, we are at risk for Cushing’s syndrome. It mostly affects adults, and more often women than men. Cushing’s syndrome is usually characterised by quick weight gain in the stomach area, a round face, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, mood imbalances or extreme tiredness and frequent bruising.

But, what goes up must come down…..

When our bodies don’t have enough cortisol, we may be at risk of Addison’s disease. This occurs when the pituitary or adrenal glands don’t function normally and these symptoms include weight loss, dizziness, tiredness and dark circles, especially under the eyes.

Experiencing COVID-19 and living with the consequences of lockdown has triggered the release of excessive amounts of cortisol in thousands of people worldwide. I know I have felt it and the need to escape from the world on several occasions in the last few months!

“The Coronavirus epidemic is causing increased stress and anxiety, especially now that it feels like we have constant chaos around us,” Dr. Akhunji says. “Reactions to the crisis can range from difficulty sleeping to impaired concentration, fear of contact with others, going into public spaces, and traveling on public transport, just to name a few.”

Managing your stress levels should be paramount in 2020 and is a skill that can keep you healthy and well in ALL areas of your life, forever! As a sufferer of anxiety for over a decade, and even as a child, I talk from experience. I am still learning new ways of handling stress and tough situations, and often relapse, crying in a pathetic heap at times, but my ability to bounce back quickly and carry on, is a million times better.

Common signs of high stress levels:
• nightmares
• feeling overwhelmed
• insomnia
• emotional outbursts
• mood swings
• panic attacks
• skin problems and itchy rashes

Ways to help reduce cortisol and to include as part of a healthy, harmonious lifestyle:
• Regular exercise that we find joy in doing
• Adequate sleep, rest and detoxing from social media
• Mindful eating and mindful living – learn how to switch off and be present and quiet
• Routine and goal-setting
• Deep breathing
• Adequate nutritious food e.g. vegetables, fruits, carbohydrates, protein, fats, hydration, satisfaction and NOT dieting
• Vitamins and mineral supplementation

There is no shame in asking for helping if you are suffering from stress or anxiety, and even depression.  Therapy and treatment is something I recommended to help you design ways to cope with the curveballs we face daily, which can lead to increased cortisol levels and the negative consequences of that. The lifestyle changes mentioned above, and therapy where necessary, will certainly help you carve out a path to a happier, healthier and more liveable life!

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