We've all heard stories about ordinary people exhibiting superhuman strength during an emergency. From lifting cars off of injured loved ones to wrestling polar bears (it happened), the body's stress response can transform each of us into less angry (and less green) versions of the Incredible Hulk. One of the steroid hormones that makes such startling transformations possible is called cortisol. Released in enormous quantities when acute stress strikes, cortisol is also secreted in response to daily events and circumstances, such as waking up in the morning or working out at the gym. In other words, it is normal for cortisol levels to fluctuate widely throughout the day. What is not normal or healthy, however, is to have consistently elevated levels of the steroid hormone in your system.
What is Cortisol Resistance?
When acute stress strikes, cortisol has the power to shut down unnecessary bodily functions, such as reproduction and the immune system, in order to help the body direct all of its energies toward the offending stressor. These interruptions in service are supposed to be of extremely short duration, just long enough for acute stress to subside. But what happens when you have high levels of cortisol flowing through your body at all hours of the day, even when you don't need it? In rare cases, it is possible for extremely stressed-out individuals to develop a resistance to the vital hormone. How does it happen?
Just as the cells of a person's body can become resistant to the hormone insulin, there are documented cases of patients whose bodies do not use cortisol effectively. The most common cause of the condition, according to medical professionals, is prolonged exposure to high levels of the stress hormone. Again, like insulin resistance, the disorder often results in serious health problems that must be treated in order for the body to maintain some semblance of homeostasis. But because we live in age when chronic stress is becoming the norm, more and more people are being diagnosed with this once rare condition.
The Effects of Elevated Cortisol
In addition to raising our blood sugar to give us the energy we need to either fight or flee, cortisol modulates immune function and raises blood pressure - both of which are good for us in the short term. But when the cortisol switch is never turned off because of chronic stress, the vital hormone can have deleterious effects on our weight, immune function, and heart health. Let us take a moment to discuss how high cortisol levels work against us over time.
Elevated Blood Sugar
When a middle-age suburban mom finds her teenage son pinned under a car that has slipped off its jack in the garage, cortisol instantly taps protein stores to create massive amounts of glucose, giving her the energy should would need to lift the vehicle off her child and save his life. Because glucose is a simple sugar and our main energy source, it raises our blood sugar anytime it is needed to deal with stress. When this happens, insulin is released for the pancreas in order to lower our blood sugar to healthy levels. But when insulin is constantly being released in order to tamp down elevated glucose levels, our cells may become resistant to the effects of the vital hormone due to overexposure. One of the most common health issues in the Western world, insulin resistance greatly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and is highly correlated to elevated cortisol levels.
We should also mention that elevated blood sugar increases your risk of weight gain and obesity. This occurs because consistently high blood glucose levels combined with insulin suppression (caused by high cortisol) leads to cells that are starved for glucose (energy). As a result, the person who is made up of those cells will inevitably experience increasingly powerful hunger pains, which may force him/her to overeat.
Immune System Suppression
Cortisol works to reduce inflammation in the body, which is healthy; but chronically elevated levels of the hormone can also suppress the immune system. An unchecked immune system can increase your risk of a whole host of health issues, including colds and flu, food allergies, certain types of cancer, gastrointestinal issues, and possibly even autoimmune diseases. It is no wonder then that people with consistently high cortisol levels have more health problems than those with normal levels of the hormone.
High Blood Pressure
The more oxygenated blood our hearts can pump to our muscles, the more energy they can make when they need it. To expedite and improve the process, cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure when we are under intense stress. Once again, these changes are healthy and necessary when our bodies need incredible amounts of energy immediately, but not so salubrious when they are carried out ad infinitum. Over a protracted period of time, constant arterial constriction combined with high blood pressure can damage blood vessels and create plaque buildup: the perfect conditions for a heart attack. This almost certainly explains why stressed-out individuals are at a significantly higher risk for heart problems.
If you suspect that elevated cortisol levels are to blame for your recent health issues, you should be tested immediately. A fast, accurate, and noninvasive salivary test, the adrenal stress index (ASI) checks for adrenal function and is a highly reliable indication of overall cortisol levels. If an experienced medical professional determines that your cortisol levels are, in fact, dangerously high, there are several steps you can take to reverse the unhealthy trend.
First and most importantly, you must get your stress under control! Some of the most common and effective strategies for stress reduction include getting more sleep, deep breathing, acupuncture/massage, any type of exercise, and meditation. It may also be helpful to confront the source of your stress with the advice and guidance of a mental health professional.
Just like stress, systemic inflammation results in elevated cortisol levels. If we can gradually and naturally decrease the inflammation in our bodies and reduce our stress, levels of the vital hormone should return to normal in short order. How can we do it? It all begins with our dietary choices. Although okay in moderation, alcohol, caffeine, and foods with high glycemic loads and lots of saturated and trans fatty acids are believed to contribute to inflammation. On the flipside, foods with high fiber, antioxidants, and lots of phytonutrients are believed to reduce inflammation over time. There are also a handful of healthy herbal supplements that can reduce stress and anxiety naturally, without any risk of addiction, overdose, or serious side effects. Curcumin, magnolia bark, and ashwagandha are three of our favorites.
Cortisol is proof that too much of a good thing can be bad for us. Although life-saving and healthful when delivered in the right quantities at the right time, the powerful stress hormone can wreck havoc on our immune and cardiovascular systems, make us gain weight, and put us at a higher risk of diabetes. The good news is that elevated cortisol levels and the health issues they cause can be reversed with proper diet, regular exercise, and stress management. But before implementing any dietary or lifestyle changes, it is important to have your cortisol levels tested by a medical professional.