Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone that helps control the body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, which is the body’s energy supply. Cortisol’s main role is in releasing glucose into the bloodstream for energy. It has similar effects of adrenaline in the body, but remains in blood for a longer period of time. Increased levels are beneficial when used for a short period of time as they help the body cope. The main goal during increased levels is an immediate energy supply with strength to endure, a desensitization to pain, and improvement in memory function. (MacDonald).
Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect that helps to modulate the immune system, digestive system and reproductive system. Any stress lasting longer than a few minutes’ results in increased levels of cortisol into the body. The liver normally monitors the release of the corticosteroids such as cortisol; however, when a person is chronically stressed, the liver is bypassed, and the corticoids are able to run free through the body. (Bryant). Excess cortisol in the body leads to lower immunity, can cause mental changes, including depression, and psychosis, which disappear when the levels return to normal. (Stoppler).
Excess or fluctuating levels of cortisol affect the rate at which the body produces serotonin. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphins and dopamine affect mood. A deficit in serotonin leads to depression and overthinking. Conversely, a lack in levels of cortisol or other steroid hormones released by the adrenals allows the immune system to over-react to pathogens. This can lead to chronic inflammation, organ damage or failure, and a number of respiratory or auto-immune diseases. (Adrenalfatiguesolution.com).
In response to chronic stress, the increase in cortisol produces the following physical effects:
- Slow down digestion, which relates to weight loss or weight gain.
- Increase the blood sugar level and/or blood pressure
- Suppression of different types of memory
- Reduces the inflammatory response
- May increase susceptibility to physical irritations and infections
- Dilate the pupils causing a strain on the heart
- Weakens the immune system by deactivating white blood cells
- Decrease libido
- Produce acne
- This weakened state can last for the duration of whatever is causing the stress.