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The hormone cortisol is produced in the adrenal cortex in response to adrenal cortical stimulating hormone (ACTH) produced in the pituitary gland. Cortisol plays an important role in regulating blood sugar, energy production, inflammation, the immune system and healing.
If you have too little cortisol, you may suffer from fatigue, chronic fatigue, exhaustion and a disease of the endocrine system called Addison’s disease. If your adrenal glands are producing too much cortisol, you may develop conditions such as weight gain, especially around the abdomen, depressed immune function with all of the consequences, accelerated aging and stomach ulcers.
Recently, a lot of attention has been directed to the effects of excess cortisol on weight gain and on the difficulty in losing weight. Collectively, the various diet plans being promoted by a long list of diet gurus have a failure rate of approximately 93 to 97 percent. There are several reasons for this. One is clearly the difficulty in achieving behavioral modification in the face of easy availability of the wrong kind of foods, inherently sedentary lifestyles, and intense media programming. Another reason is that some of our hormones work against us, in the weight loss perspective. A high cortisol level is one of the culprits.
Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol is elevated in response to stress. The adrenal glands are not particular, any kind of stress will do. The stress can be physical, environmental, chemical or imaginary. The human brain is hard wired with automatic responses to protect the body from harm. The classic work on stress was done by Dr. Hans Selye, M.D. He studied the physiological consequences of stress in rats and transferred that research data into a human model.
(1) In the “Fight or Flight” response, the adrenal glands enlarge and secrete large quantities of adrenal cortical hormones. These hormones suppress inflammatory responses and mobilize the body’s energy reserves. This puts the body on RED ALERT and diverts all of the body’s biochemical resources to immediate survival. The body’s self healing mechanisms are arrested (healing diverts energy and raw materials away from immediate survival), the immune system is suppressed, glycogen stores in the liver and muscle tissue are mobilized to raise the blood sugar level and digestion and assimilation are inhibited. The stomach lining becomes thin and ulcerated and the thymus gland and lymphatic tissue shrinks. This “Fight or Flight” response works well when dealing with man eating food, but it is not suited for our modern lifestyle. Battling traffic, competing for parking spaces and watching the evening news produces the same physiological responses as running for your life. And the stimuli don’t stop and go away, leaving the body with chronic high cortisol levels.
(2) All forms of stress produce the same physiological consequences. This includes environmental stress (heat, cold and noise, etc.), chemical stress (pollution, drugs, etc.), physical stress (overexertion, trauma, infection, etc.), psychological stress (worry, fear, etc.) and biochemical stress (nutritional deficiencies, refined sugar consumption, etc.). All of these different sources of stress are additive and cumulative in their effects.
As the body responds to this cumulative stress, it goes through three stages of response.
(1) The first stage is REACTION. The body experiences the symptoms from the trauma, infection, heat, cold, chemical irritation, etc. The endocrine system responds with the release of cortisol and other hormones to compensate for the trauma. The heart beats faster, the blood pressure rises, the pupils dilate,
(2) The second stage is ADAPTATION. After the adrenal glands have enlarged and released large quantities of adrenal cortical hormones, the symptoms disappear and the individual feels good, has energy, and is able to function in the presence of the stresses he/she is under.
(3) The third stage is EXHAUSTION. After an extended period in stage two, the body’s reserves of nutritional elements (raw materials) and resilience becomes depleted. The symptoms return and there is now no relief. The individual may collapse physically, suffer a nervous breakdown, become dysfunctional and/or experience an organ or body system failure (heart attack, stroke, etc.)
(4) An optional fourth stage is DEATH. If the stresses continue after stage three is reached and the body is no longer able to adapt, and rest, regeneration, and healing do not occur, the consequence is death.
It is important to recognize that an individual in this cycle short of stage four can reverse the consequences of stress by removing themselves from the stressful situation and giving themselves the rest, peace of mind, and nutritional support that is necessary to restore the body’s reserves.
It is also important to recognize that an individual in stage two has physiologically adapted and they feel asymptomatic, and are usually, therefore, not too concerned about or even conscious of what is happening. One of the consequences of this adaptation is suppression of the immune system. These individuals are more susceptible to infections, colds, allergies, etc. In the presence of new and dangerous infectious diseases, this can be a very important matter.
The Consequences of Chronic High Cortisol
To repeat, chronically elevated cortisol levels contribute to the accumulation of abdominal fat and make it very difficult to get rid of it. The immune system is suppressed and the individual becomes more susceptible to infections, both minor and major. Clearly, we would like for our cortisol levels to return to normal.
How to Correct your Cortisol Level
Stress reduction is an essential part of all efforts to normalize cortisol. Stress is the stimuli that caused the cortisol levels to get out of hand to begin with. Each individual should explore and find the stress reduction techniques that work best for themselves. Meditation, physical activities, attitude changes etc. are good paths to explore. Without stress reduction, all therapeutic and support measures will eventually fail.
Rest. This may sound obvious but it must be managed and scheduled as a deliberate strategy, choice and course of action. Otherwise it gets forgotten in the chaos of life.
A low glycemic diet is important. Sugar handling stress increases cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol, in turn, aggravates the sugar handling situation contributing to the development of high insulin levels and ultimately diabetes.
Nutritional supplementation is very valuable in restoring normal cortisol levels. It is important, however, to recognize if your cortisol levels are high or low. Low cortisol levels are the consequence of adrenal exhaustion or the exhaustion phase of the stress response. High cortisol levels are the result of the response to chronic stress and represent the adaptation phase of the stress response.
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