Cortisol and Stress: How Cortisol Levels Affect the Body

Cortisol and stress are connected and, although stress isn't the only reason for the release of cortisol into the blood stream, it is still known as a stress hormone.

Every time that you are confronted with a stressful situation your body undergoes a fight or flight response and cortisol levels increase.

Small increases in cortisol levels can actually have positive effects on the mind and body. These include:

  • increased energy
  • heightened attention and other cognitive functions
  • increased focus
  • stronger immune system
  • less pain sensitivity.

Small increases in cortisol levels are helpful.

But in today's world many of the causes of stress occur on an everyday basis.

Whether it is the frustrating daily commute, financial or relationship concerns, or unrelenting workloads, your body can be constantly on the alert.

Indeed, anything that frustrates or annoys you has the potential to increase cortisol levels and results in warning signs of stress.

This can mean that the body is being flooded with higher cortisol levels and that it doesn't have a chance to return to its normal state.

This chronic stress has been shown to increase stress-related illnesses.

Here we discuss:

  • what cortisol is
  • how cortisol and stress affect the body
  • what you can do to reduce the effects of stress.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases the blood sugar levels so that you can have energy for action.

It does this by converting amino acids into glycogen within the liver.

At the same time, this hormone mobilizes free fatty acids from fat (adipose) tissue, breaking down protein, and increasing arterial blood pressure.

The increased blood sugar and the mobilization of fatty acids is in preparation for the fight or flight response to a stressor.

A number of stress symptoms follow which may include:

  • increased muscle tension
  • heightened focus and attention
  • rapid and shallow breathing

The body's stress response was designed to protect you.

But when it's constantly on alert, your health can pay the price.

Chronic stress and cortisol: Stress and health

Cortisol is one of the important stress hormones that fuel your body to do battle or to run away.

This stress hormone serves as an important physiological response to stress and is known as the alarm phase of the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

While you may think you are adapting to higher and higher stress levels, you could simply be living with an unhealthy amount of chronic stress.

Prolonged high cortisol levels can result in:

  • higher levels of blood pressure
  • Increased cholesterol in the blood.

    Combined with increased chances of atherosclerosis, the individual may be at greater risk of coronary heart disease. Stress and heart disease are related.

  • increased sugar levels in the blood stream
  • lower bone density
  • increased abdominal fat which is linked to poorer health.

Increased cortisol levels also result in physiological changes such as a decrease in lymphocytes released from the thymus gland and lymph nodes.

The lymphocytes are part of the body’s defense mechanism against invading bacteria. A decline in the effectiveness of the immune response results in a greater chance of catching a cold or flu as you have less ability to fight off invading bacteria.

Stress and the immune system are closely related.

How to keep cortisol levels at a healthy level

Cortisol and stress affect the body.

But research shows that if you can reframe the causes of stress as an opportunity to learn, challenge, or stretch yourself, then you are more likely to activate the challenge response that reduces cortisol levels.

This means that cognitive techniques that practice positive thinking skills or develop a positive mental attitude are beneficial for stress relief.

Another way to keep cortisol at healthy levels is to activate the relaxation response.

Stress relievers that can activate the relaxation response include:

These stress relievers activate the relaxation response and counter the emotional and physical effects of stress.

Search here for more stress management techniques

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