Cortisol, or stress hormone, is the main steroid hormone responsible for managing stress. In other words, it is secreted as a natural-protective response when our body detects a threat. It helps to check blood pressure-blood glucose levels, maintain immune function and prevent inflammatory reaction. It is a healthy stimulant when it is released in sufficient amount, but it can cause damage to health when the level increases. The level of cortisol is usually regulated by the body. However, high stress or cortisone drug therapies may increase the level of cortisol. It can lead to weight gain, hypertension, sleep disorder, psychological problems, low energy, and diabetes. Managing stress is the best way to lower the cortisol.
Cortisol is the primary hormone produced in the adrenal glands that is released in stressful situations. This vital hormone is continuously released in varying proportions throughout the day. Its release increases in stress moments, and it balances the reactions of the body.
Its main task is to stimulate the body’s defense mechanisms against physical, mental and mental stress. When the hypothalamus in the brain becomes alarmed in the event of a threat, the pituitary gland triggers the adrenal glands by secreting a chemical hormone (adrenocorticotropic) to produce the required amount of cortisol.
This allows the body to quickly respond to the situation at hand, and adopt a survival posture such as fighting, escaping or freezing.
Since most of the cells have cortisol receptors, this hormone performs vital tasks in the body when released into the bloodstream. The most important task is to suppress body reactions such as rapid heartbeat, stomach disorder, diarrhea, dry mouth and panic. Other duties include:
Short-term secreted cortisol increases body resistance. Health effects depend on how often the hormone is circulating in the body.
Cortisol, which is secreted under stress, keeps the blood sugar in the bloodstream, since the muscles use it for energy. It does this by suppressing insulin, which adjusts the blood sugar content. So that blood sugar can be used easily, instead of being stored. It also narrows the arteries to increase blood pressure. The person in danger will fight or escape.
Cortisol is a major contributor to high blood sugar, insulin resistance and diabetes. When the body encounters stress, the hormone cortisol increases its blood sugar levels by preventing insulin from performing its function. Insulin resistance may develop if insulin is constantly suppressed with chronic stress, and then the risk of diabetes increases.
Th;s hormone increases the blood pressure by narrowing the arteries in order to reduce the effects of stress on the body, and to achieve balance. If this condition persists, the constantly rising blood pressure can damage the blood vessels and causes hypertension or even a heart attack.
When inflammation occurs in the body, the release of cortisol increases. This is good against sudden dangers, but high level of chronic stress hormone weakens the immune system, and makes the person more vulnerable to diseases. It can also trigger auto-immune diseases where the immune system mistakenly attacks one’s own body.
Irregular levels of cortisol may also cause depression and sometimes engender a sense of panic. Anxieties may develop. Especially high cholesterol plays an important role in depression. In addition, prolonged cortisol release may slow or reduce the production of nerve cells in hippocampus, memory center in the brain . This can lead to serious memory problems, even Alzheimer’s disease.
Over-release of cortisol may adversely affect sexual performance. In particular, cortisol excess in the blood can inhibit sexual activity and reproductive system by suppressing dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), steroid hormones in the adrenal glands.
Besides, it can cause decreased production of testosterone in men, the reduction of testicles and impotence. It may increase the risk of ovarian shrinkage and infertility in women. The risk during pregnancy is premature birth and miscarriage.
An excess of cortisol in the blood may cause “Cushing Syndrome”. Cortisone drugs are active in the development of this syndrome. Since tumors in any part of the body (especially in the pituitary and adrenal glands) can increase the production of cortisol, they may cause Cushing’s syndrome. The most common symptoms are weight gain, hypertension, memory problems, loss of attention and concentration.
Cushing’s syndrome can lead to osteoporosis, muscle weakness, increased thirst, frequent urination, bruises and cracks in the skin, facial rash and sexual reluctance.
It is used to investigate problems with the pituitary or adrenal gland and to diagnose Cushing’s syndrome or Addison’s disease. Since this hormone can be found all over our body, it can be measured from blood, urine and saliva.
Normal cortisol values in adults are as follows:
Reference values and results vary depending on the method used by the laboratory, age, gender, health history and sleep patterns of the person.
Cortisol deficiency occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol. Main reasons:
Other diseases such as excessive blood loss, tuberculosis, AIDS, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (an enzyme disorder) can also lead to cortisol deficiency.
Cortisol deficiency may cause Addison’s disease (primary adrenal insufficiency). It is a rare autoimmune disease that harms the adrenal glands. Symptoms usually start slow, but may be serious. Among main symptoms are excessive fatigue, excessive muscle-weight loss, skin changes and mood changes.
If cortisol deficiency is suspected, first a cortisol blood test is performed. If the deficiency is of a small amount, drug treatment is not usually used, but if cortisol is considerably high, hydrocortisone or prednisone medication is used. In addition, at least 8 hours of sleep, stress avoidance, balanced-healthy nutrition can be suggested. Vitamin C supplements can be added to the nutrition program to support the body’s immune system.
Synthetic cortisol hormones similar to the ones produced in the body are called cortisone, which are included in the corticosteroid medication group.
The type of medication to be used in treatment depends on the person’s condition:
Cortisol drugs are generally used for skin diseases such as psoriasis, asthma, ulcerative colitis, lupus, some types of arthritis, especially immune-related cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, and Addison’s disease. This group of drugs is used to prevent the body from rejecting the organ in the organ transplantation, since it prevents the immune response of the body. In high doses or long-term use, a number of complications may occur, such as osteoporosis and diabetes.
With the use of high-dose corticosteroids for a long time, cortisol production is significantly reduced and the pituitary and adrenal glands may be impaired. If the medication ceases suddenly, cortisol deficiency may develop with sudden symptoms such as shock. If this is the case, you should see your doctor.
Excessive stress, birth control pills, drugs containing high doses of cortisone are the main causes of cortisol elevation. In addition, adrenal gland related diseases, tumors, excessive secretion of thyroid hormone can lead to high cortisol.
Usually, the underlying cause is investigated and, depending on the situation, drug therapy is applied, which reduces cortisol release (such as Nizoral and Metopirone). If the cause of the elevation is a tumor that develops in the adrenal glands, treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy begin. If the tumor is in advanced stage, adrenal glands may be removed.
Factors that can reduce hormone production and negative effects of high levels of cortisol are balanced nutrition, timely rest and physical exercise.
A nutritionally rich diet with fibers, antioxidants and healthy fats such as omega-3 is effective in stabilizing the level of cortisol. Be careful not to consume excessive coffee, packaged foods, to avoid alcohol and sugary drinks, not to consume large amounts of protein and fatty foods. Sugar should be used with caution. Vitamin C, magnesium, fish oil supplements should be taken.
References: 1- Cortisol Test, 2- Cortisol and corticosteroids, 3- The role of cortisol in the body