Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

Cortisol: the stress hormone

Cortisol is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.  It is regarded by the scientific community as the stress hormone, and is produced by the body in tense situations to help us cope with them. The production of this hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, in response to stressful situations and low blood glucocorticoid levels.

It is an emotion / emotional state that generates physical tension.  It can be triggered by any situation or thought that makes us feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. In small doses, stress can be good, as it helps us, for example, to avoid danger or to carry out our purposes. However, when stress becomes recurrent, it can damage our health.

Through the way we think, believe and feel, we can affect our cortisol levels.  Science shows that by changing our thoughts, we change the biochemical activity of the brain cells in a certain way.

Lack of humor, constant irritation, severe anger, constant tiredness without having made an effort, and lack of appetite or chronic hunger are possible indicators of too high cortisol levels in the body.

Cortisol: the stress and insomnia hormone

Situations that we interpret as stressful increase our cortisol levels, negatively affecting the quality and duration of sleep. Cortisol, even if in the previous paragraph we described its negative action, must be preserved at a basal level to keep us awake and active during the day, and then decrease in the evening.  

Cortisol levels vary throughout the day: there are people who are more active in the morning and others who cannot rest well even after eating. Nonetheless, it is normal for this to gradually decrease as the day progresses, reaching lows when it comes time to quit. However, if cortisol levels are not reduced during the night, as the stress response is kept active, it is normal for it to be difficult to sleep.  

Cortisol plays an important role in our health and well-being, raising its levels whenever we identify a problem as a possible threat. When cortisol levels are optimal, we feel mentally strong, motivated and see things clearly. When cortisol levels drop, we feel confused, apathetic and fatigued.     

Regulating stress is important and, very often, simple. In a healthy body, the stress response occurs and then allows the relaxation response to take over. When our stress response activates too often, it’s harder to shut down and, therefore, we’re more likely to create an imbalance. Also, when the stress remains constant, we end up getting sick.

Stress is the mechanism used by the body to solve problems, but when the situation recurs, it can lead to diseases such as diabetes, depression, insulin resistance, hypertension and other autoimmune diseases. The body’s response to stress is protective and adaptive in nature. Conversely, the chronic stress response produces a biochemical imbalance which, in turn, weakens the immune system against certain viruses or alterations.

Several studies have shown that recurrent or very intense stress is one of the factors that causes the development of somatizations,  as a consequence of the lack of adaptive capacity to changes. There are many psychosomatic illnesses produced by stress or triggered and aggravated by it.

When acute stress is continuous, our body can produce ulcers in different parts of the digestive system, as well as cardiovascular problems.  Even in the case of people with high risk factors it can cause heart attacks or strokes. All these diseases progress silently, somatising themselves in different ways and in different areas of the body, according to certain characteristics of the person who suffers from them.

Social support reduces cortisol levels

Social support and oxytocin interact in our body by suppressing the subjective responses produced by psychosocial stress. The social support offered to us by family and friends is one of the most powerful protective factors against stress-related illnesses,  such as those we discussed earlier.          

A biological psychology study conducted at the University of Freiburg, Germany, led by Markus Heinrichs, showed for the first time that, in humans, the hormone oxytocin plays an important role in both stress control and reductive effect of the same. Moreover, oxytocin also plays a very important role in our social behavior (stress modulator).

It is difficult to control the levels of cortisol in the blood, but there are certain factors that are more easily controlled and that can help us. For example, having good social support (people you can rely on) or reducing the consumption of certain substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, which indirectly increase cortisol levels.

Furthermore, to reduce the levels of this hormone, we must not forget the importance of a diet with various nutrients, since reducing the ingestion of calories can increase cortisol levels. And, again, carry out some  relaxation and meditation exercises, which reduce the risk of suffering from chronic stress,  as confirmed by a study carried out by the State University of Ohio.

According to this study, the simple difference between those who meditate and those who do not is that for a meditative mind, thought happens, is a witness, while in the case of a mind that does not meditate, thought is produced, it commands.   

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