Cortisol is our number one stress hormone. It has far-reaching effects on our physiology and health. The wisdom of what it does can be harnessed if we understand how it works.
The number one action of cortisol is that it is anti-inflammatory when its properly regulated. If its not regulated life quality of life plummets. Insomnia, pain and weight can all increase. Energy levels, cognitive function and libido decrease. Here’s why:
- Cortisol gives us a source of immediate energy by releasing glucagon from the liver. The down side is that it can lead to high blood sugar, pre-diabetes or insulin resistance if we are chronically drawing on it. Weight gain and estrogen dominance can also result.
- Cortisol also releases stored amino acids when in fight or flight mode to meet the heightened energy requirements. The negative result of this is similar to the first one. We want to be in the rest and digest mode most of the time so we absorb amino acids from our food.
- Cortisol increases the uptake of glucose to make fat tissue. This is hard-wired in us for times of famine. Body fat stored around the abdomen and trunk is due to running on cortisol.
- Cortisol breaks down bone to provide minerals to meet the energy needs. This weakens bones leading to osteopenia and osteoporosis. This is the same effect that taking steroid medications for too long has on bone health.
- Cortisol makes up happy. There’s a heightened neural excitability. This is the good side of stress. Perceptual and neural abilities are amplified.
- Cortisol mobilizes the immune system. More antibodies are produced when we are stressed. The body is ready to deal with injury. The negative side is that modern-day stressors are different from those of our ancestors. Sitting in traffic is stressful but we are not likely to get a sprained ankle the way we would running from a tiger.
- Cortisol increases our circulating neutrophils. Our immune systems are often in a state of hyper reactivity. Meditation trains us so we can come down.
- Our resources are diverted. T cells and lymphocyte production changes. This is why we get sick when we are stressed or when a period of high stress ends.
- Cortisol changes the thyroid function especially the conversion of T4-T3. When cortisol increases, thyroid hormone decreases. This is an attempt to maintain homeostasis.. Thyroid issues will develop when stress goes on for long enough. This is a major contributor to why we have the current epidemic of thyroid disease.
- Cortisol changes secretory IgA. Deactivates all the immune functions that aren’t needed for flight and fight mode. Mucosal tissues are weakened. Low grade infection can become chronic. Food reactions develop.