May 02, 2022
Here at The Morrison Center, we talk a lot about stress, adrenal fatigue, impaired metabolic processes, hormone imbalances, and immune regulation. All of these conditions can be tied to one powerful glucocorticoid hormone called cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.
How We Make Cortisol
Cortisol is made in the adrenal cortex of the adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys. The brain sends signals to the adrenals to convert cholesterol into cortisol, which then primarily circulates the body in an inactive form. Once it reaches its corresponding tissue receptors, it converts into its active form through an enzymatic reaction.
Cortisol + Stress
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which sets off the “fight or flight” cascade by stimulating the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. The brain then activates the release of cortisol to help the body stay on high alert as a compensatory mechanism. Read on to see how cortisol allows the body to compensate for stress.
Cortisol + Metabolism
If you saw a bear in the woods, would you want your body to rest and store energy for later, or make more energy so that you can get out of that situation alive? Probably the latter. In response to acute stress, your body uses cortisol to increase the availability of blood glucose by breaking down glucose stores (aka gluconeogenesis) in the liver and decreasing insulin sensitivity (aka insulin resistance). This is your body’s way of making sure that you have enough energy to survive and that the energy isn’t being wasted on nonessential processes at that moment.
But just how often are we encountering bears in the wild? In modern day society, many of us experience this stress response without a way to actually use the extra blood sugar. Some people actually don’t make enough adrenaline in response to stress, which means that all that extra unused glucose contributes to weight gain, primarily in the lower abdomen. This is due to a subsequent rise in insulin, which signals the body to store sugar as fat. The deficiency of adrenaline during a stressful period can also lead to stress-eating as a way to stimulate dopamine production, thus adding to the risk of unhealthy weight gain. For those who do make adrenaline during times of stress, they may experience weight loss as a result of increased metabolism and decreased appetite.
In other words, for some, stress causes weight gain while for others, stress can cause weight loss. Figuring out where you stand on this spectrum of hormone management is an important topic for you to discuss with your healthcare provider.
Cortisol + Immune Regulation
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone, or something you may know as a “steroid.” It suppresses inflammatory responses in the body to boost your immune system processes. Well, that sounds like a good thing, right? Well, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, they can suppress immune system functions, thus increasing susceptibility to infections. When this is an issue, we work to identify the stressors and balance the adrenals.
When in balance, your body makes the most cortisol when waking in the morning, which then steadily declines through the rest of the day. In an ideal world, your body has a circadian rhythm that allows for proper cortisol balance. In our modern world, the stressors we encounter and the way we handle those stressors may strongly affect this natural rhythm. When cortisol levels remain high due to internal or external stressors, our metabolism, immune system, and mood may be affected, causing symptoms of anxiety, frequent infections, and weight gain. Moreover, the chronically high cortisol levels can lead to muscle wasting as a way to make more glucose for energy. If cortisol levels drop due to chronic stress, inflammatory processes can take over and lead to chronic health problems, like fatigue, irritability, brain fog, and joint pains.
Andrew Heyman, MD advocates a paradigm for chronic stress, which helps to explain the detrimental effects of chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. He points out that the cortisol receptors in the brain are highly concentrated in the hippocampus (the memory center), amygdala (fight or flight control panel), and prefrontal cortex (logical part of the brain). Under chronic stress conditions, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex can actually shrink, from excess cortisol production leading to brain fog and poor concentration.[1,2] At the same time, excess cortisol causes the amygdala to enlarge, thereby leading to increased susceptibility to the fight or flight response, anxiety, and irritability.
The digestive tract also has a great deal of cortisol receptors. High cortisol levels reroutes conversion of tryptophan to serotonin (happy mood hormone), to quinolinic acid (highly inflammatory neurotoxin). This is the perfect setup for IBS.
Supplements We Like for Managing Stress
Cortisol + You
Stress can be health-promoting or health-deteriorating. When you are aware of the impact that stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels can have on your health, you can make lifestyle choices, diet modifications, and begin the process to look for the underlying causes of your stress. If you would like help looking for your underlying issues, speak with one of our practitioners to determine the best way to manage your adrenal health. They are happy to help you identify the underlying causes of health imbalances, and determine the best foods and supplements to rebalance your system. Call our office to find out more: 212-989-9828.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to treat or cure any disease.