How Does Stress And Cortisol Impact Your Body?
Stress is an inevitable part of life. Every event be it studies, workload and caretaking come with a price called stress. Our bodies are designed to respond to various stressful events by producing the hormone cortisol. Read further to learn about cortisol hormone, connection between stress and cortisol and their impact on your body.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol. Though it is widely known as a stress hormone, it has a variety of functions. It is released from the adrenal glands that sits on top of your kidneys. Striking the right balance in your cortisol levels is the key to better health.
Cortisol production increases when you wake up in the morning, during exercise or stressful events. In such situations, your pituitary gland induces your adrenal glands to release the right quantity of cortisol. When this hormone gets released into your blood, it regulates your blood pressure, reduces inflammation, increases your body’s glucose metabolism and helps your body respond to danger.
What Is The Connection Between Stress And Cortisol?
Our body continuously responds to stressful events that happen internally and externally. Our nervous system is classified into two i.e., sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Sympathetic nervous system gets activated during stress that results in hormonal and physical responses. Stress induces the brain to send signals like an alarm to the hypothalamus to release the hormone adrenaline. This hormone causes a rapid increase in heart rate and breathing rate. When the body recognizes the stress as a threat, it stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol hormone to keep you alert.
Signs That Indicate Your Cortisol Levels Are High:
When cortisol levels are extremely low, it causes a condition called Addison’s disease, whereas high cortisol levels indicate Cushing’s syndrome. You will observe the following changes in your body when your cortisol levels are too high:
- Weight gain, especially in the abdomen and face
- Thin and fragile skin that takes longer to heal
- Excessive facial hair
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Fat deposits between the shoulder blades
- High blood pressure
- High blood glucose levels
- Muscle weakness
Tests To Measure Cortisol Levels In The Body:
If you experience the above symptoms, your doctor might suggest a cortisol test. Cortisol levels in your body can be determined through blood, saliva and urine tests. Let us see about the different tests to determine cortisol levels.
- Blood test to measure cortisol levels: Blood test is done two times a day, one in the morning and the other one in the afternoon around 4 PM. This is because the cortisol levels vary according to the time of the day. This test will show the level of cortisol in your blood at the time of testing. A nurse or lab technician will take the blood sample from the vein in your arm. If the levels are too high, your physician will suggest urine or saliva tests to make sure whether the high values are the effect of stress or medications.
- Urine test to detect ‘free cortisol’: Cortisol Urine tests determine the level of cortisol hormone present in the ruine. In this test, the urine sample has to be collected throughout the day (24 hours sample) in a specific container provided in the lab.
- Saliva test for cortisol: Saliva test is 90% accurate and reliable test to detect Cushing’s syndrome. Since cortisol levels tend to be lower after 11 PM, this test should be done at night before going to bed. If the result shows a high value, it indicates a disorder.
What Happens When Your Cortisol Levels Are Too High?
When the threatening event has passed, your hormones return to normal levels and your heart rate normalises. But in case of chronic stress, you tend to constantly feel attacked and remain in fight-or-flight mode.
When your body is repeatedly exposed to high cortisol levels, it leads to cushing’s syndrome. Sometimes tumours on the pituitary gland result in this syndrome. High stress and cortisol levels are also linked to anxiety and depression.
How To Control Stress And Cortisol Levels Naturally?
High stress and cortisol levels can make you eat more than required. This is termed as emotional eating. This can lead to high food consumption and weight gain. While food does not directly lower your cortisol, mindful eating practices and following a balanced meal plan ensures that you get adequate nutritional status through your diet. Learn to identify what stresses you out and seek help from your healthcare provider on ways to handle stressful events.