Cortisol: Friend or Foe?
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone as it is released in response to physical, mental or emotional stress. Cortisol and insulin are the only hormones that tend to rise as we age. We talk so much about hormone deficiency that you might think an increase in cortisol must be a good thing, but it is not. Like other hormones cortisol has many important functions. Cortisol influences blood sugar, body weight, the immune systeme, bone density, sleep, protein synthesis, emotions, and balance of the other hormones. And, like other hormones proper function depends on having the proper balance of cortisol – not too little and not too much cortisol.
Cortisol and Stress
We tend to think stress is bad, but it does serve a purpose. The stress response prepares the body for sudden danger. It is many times called the fight or flight response. In this acute setting stress is good as it protects us. During this acute stress reponse there is a sudden surge in epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The net effect is an increase blood pressure, increase in heart rate, faster breathing, a boost in energy production/release, a shunting of blood to the muscles, and increased alertness. All of this prepares us to deal with potentially dangerous situations.
In acute stress the increase in cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine are short lived and drop back to normal once the stress is dissipated or removed.
If, however, stress becomes chronic, persistant, or unrelenting causing cortisol to be elevated for prolonged periods then health problems can occur. Stress is not the only thing that raises cortisol. Depression will raise cortisol, too.
Signs and Symptoms of Too Much Cortisol
There are many signs and symptoms of too much cortisol. Many of these signs and symptoms have other causes making the diagnosis of too much cortisol challenging.
- Weight gain especially around the belly.
- Depression, anxiety, or seasonal affective disorder.
- Thin and wrinkling skin.
- Loss of muscle mass.
- Loss of bone mass.
- Memory loss.
- Poor concentration.
- Cold extremities.
- Frequent cold and flu-like symptoms as high cortisol suppresses the immune system.
- Allergy and asthma related symptoms.
- Sleep disturbance.
- Irritable bowel and abdominal bloating.
- Hair loss.
- Decreased libido.
- Cravings for sweets and carbohydrates.
Cortisol and Weight
Cortisol is unique in that it puts calories into our fatty tissues and also allows calories out of the fat stores. Have you noticed that some people report gaining weight when under stress and others report losing weight? Is it possible that people’s weight act differently in response to cortisol, and if so, why is that?
The answer to opposite responses to cortisol is insulin. As you may recall insulin is a fattening hormone. Cortisol like insulin stimulates liprotein lipase or LPL. LPL helps to store calories in our fat stores. When insulin is high cortisol facilitates storing more fat. When insulin is low cortisol allows calories to be released from fat leading to a loss of body fat.
That’s why one person (the one with high insulin) will gain fat when stressed and another person (the one with low insulin) will lose fat.
High cortisol inhibits thyroid function. Low thyroid leads to a slower metabolism which leads to weight gain.
How to Treat Too Much Cortisol
Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands make several other hormones that are dependent on having adequate levels of vitamin C and the B complex vitamins. These vitamins are depleted when cortisol levels are chronically high and need to be replaced. Ashwagandhda, an herb, can reduce cortisol levels in doses of 500 to 1,000 mg a day. Phosphotidylserine blocks the release of cortisol. The dose is 100 to 300 mg at night. Rhodiola is another herb that appears to be beneficial in managing high cortisol levels. It also stimulates dopamine and serotonin secretion making useful for mood disorders and depression. The dose is 400-600 mg a day.
Don’t let stress and too much cortisol get the best of you. Look into stress management techniques, too. This can include any number of relaxation techniques and something as simple as deep breathing.