An Introduction to Cortisol

The primary stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline (aka epinephrine) are produced by the adrenal glands in response to the brain perceiving danger and signalling (via the autonomic nervous system) that certain physiological responses need to happen immediately in order for us to survive an emergency situation.

Cortisol is often overlooked in favour of the better known adrenaline. But whereas adrenaline is a fast acting hormone with the primary aim of getting your blood pumping faster in order to allow you to fight or flight from a threat, the mechanism involved with cortisol has a slower but longer lasting hormonal response.

In short, Cortisol’s function is to raise the amount of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream in order to increase the amount of energy that is immediately available to us.

There are two benefits to having optimum cortisol expression. The first is to help wake us up in the morning and the second is to support adrenaline’s fight or flight response. Unfortunately, modern living tends to send most people’s cortisol production out of balance so that their levels are either too high, too low or highly erratic. The knock on effect to health is often complicated but this guide is designed as a basic introduction.

If you are interested in working with me to help balance your own cortisol production and reduce the impact of stress please contact me here.

Cortisol’s 24 hour cycle

  • Your level of cortisol production should peak every morning at around 8am. High cortisol in the morning means that you have enough glucose in your bloodstream to Get up! Get out! and Go hunt for food! This function might not seem like a big deal to you but for your distant ancestors would have been crucial to survival.
  • During the day your food intake, sunlight exposure and activity levels will help to regulate your energy levels and so your cortisol production can begin to slow down.
  • During the night your cortisol production gradually increases so that by day-break you are good to go again.

Cortisol’s emergency function

You remember that cortisol’s primary function is to increase glucose? Well, in response to a threat (either real or imagined), while adrenaline is signalling your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to contract (in order that you quickly get more blood to the muscles and more oxygen to your heart) cortisol will increase your blood glucose (sugar) levels in order that you can run further or fight for longer. Blood glucose is a source of immediate energy.

Cortisol imbalance

The problem is that our entire hormonal system needs to be carefully balanced throughout the day. If your cortisol level is triggered to stay too high for too long and at the wrong times of day then it upsets the delicate balance of fifty or so other hormones and of numerous neurotransmitters.

At a physical level, high cortisol production detracts from non-emergency processes such as

  • Wound healing
  • Muscle and bone formation and maintenance
  • A healthy menstrual cycle, reproduction and libido
  • Immunity
  • Thyroid hormone production and transformation
  • Digestion
  • Melatonin production – which can interfere with sleep.

Cortisol also influences our various neurotransmitters and so it can upset the role of those which may not have such a useful role in an emergency situation. Neurologically, high cortisol levels can impair:

  • Short term memory
  • Mood regulation
  • Behaviour regulation
  • Planning and organising (our executive functions)
  • Making good judgements.

You may recognise yourself as having some of these temporary brain impairments in situations that you find stressful.

High cortisol in non-stressful situations

If you’ve ever had a “sugar crash” a little while after consuming too much sugar, alcohol or even just too many carbs in one go you may well notice some of the problems I listed above. Maybe you forgot where you left your keys, you felt like you wanted to cry, you yelled unnecessarily at someone, you couldn’t decide what to pack or cook, or you did something impulsive that you’ll be regretting at leisure.

Your digestion breaks carbohydrates into simple glucose molecules quite quickly and sends them to your blood for immediate energy. However, your bloodstream should only ever have around 4g of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream at any one time. That’s less than one teaspoon!

When blood glucose levels are too high the effect can be dangerous – causing damage to your nerves, blood vessels, organ and brain; and so to avoid this situation the hormone insulin quickly steps in to metabolise the glucose before it causes too much damage.

But then your body notices this decrease in blood glucose… This is when your regulatory systems recognise a potential threat and inform your adrenals to ramp up cortisol production. In evolutionary terms not having enough glucose in your blood means you won’t have the energy to get up and hunt for more food. Low blood glucose is also a stress trigger!

And so in response your cortisol levels rise to increase blood glucose, and the more frequently this happens, the more of the above impairments, both physical and neurological, you are likely to see. And what happens when you can’t concentrate and things go wrong? You get more stressed!

Re-balancing cortisol production

A lot of the recommendations that I give to clients at the beginning of treatment are designed to help their cortisol production return to the natural 24 hour cycle.

Some of my recommendations may be dietary, such as:

  • Reducing carbohydrate intake, particularly sugar
  • Increasing intake of clean, beneficial and undamaged forms of fat and also of undamaged cholesterol sources to provide both stable energy and the building blocks for optimal hormonal production
  • Timing meals and macronutrients so as to provide continual energy that benefits cyclical hormone production
  • Using specific supplements to reduce emotional and physical perceptions of “threat”

And some will relate to lifestyle, such as:

  • Sleeping and exercising in a way that encourages a return to cyclical hormone production
  • Reducing stressors that unnecessarily stimulate cortisol production
  • Using naturopathic techniques that allow the hormonal stress response to “stand down”

If you are interested in knowing a little more about how my health and nutrition coaching practice then please click here!