Don't let cortisol poisoning get you!
In my psychological practice, almost every individual I see is experiencing ongoing stress in their lives.
Whether you are feeling unhappy within your workplace, having issues within your family, recovering from injury or chronic illness, or your relationship with your partner is causing you distress and worry, chances are high that you are not sleeping well and that your own body is poisoning you.
I have outlined below what happens when cortisol is present in your system and what you can do to try to avoid this as much as possible. My explanations are simplistic as I am not a medical specialist. If you have any questions about some of the issues I have raised, please, please consult with a medical professional, preferably a holistic GP as they know everything that there is to know about hormones.
My hope is that you are frightened enough by the information outlined below to actively seek to reduce the devastating impact of this powerful hormone on your body.
How does this happen?
One of the most powerful and potentially damaging hormones produced by your body is cortisol. When you experience ongoing stress in your day-to-day environment cortisol will be present in your system. Unfortunately when cortisol levels are raised for an extended period of time many other hormones are adversely affected. Imagine your body as a finely tuned machine: when one area is out of balance this impacts on the entire functioning of the machine, causing a cascade of troubling side effects for you.
When does an increase in cortisol occur?
Cortisol is your body’s natural response to stress. It is actually an anti-stress hormone designed to manage the body’s inflammatory response to ongoing stress. By design, it was only ever meant to provide a short-term fix. When cortisol remains in your system for too long your body gets stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of damage and destruction.
Unfortunately, many of the issues we face today are ongoing, not short-term:
- In the Western world, the average worker spends almost 50% of their waking hours at work. If your workplace is causing you distress then you are more than likely experiencing stress on a daily basis.
- When you have an injury or a chronic illness your body will be under ongoing stress.
- If there is conflict within your family or your relationship then you are experiencing on-going stress.
- That adrenalin rush that you experience after an hour long workout or a 45 minute jog on the beach, that’s a direct result of cortisol in your body. Your stress system is activated. If you are already experiencing any of the other life stressors mentioned above, you are contributing to the maintenance of cortisol in your system – your body is already ‘up-regulated’.
- When you consume caffeine and alcohol, often our chosen method for coping with stress, your body actually increases the production of cortisol. Interestingly, alcohol can stimulate a larger release of cortisol than environmental stressors!
What does increased cortisol actually do?
The ongoing production of cortisol impacts on almost every aspect of your body and your functioning.
Healing: cortisol production shuts down your immune system. Have you ever been overloaded and then had the annoying experience of catching your workmates flu or your children’s stomach bug? This can be a direct response to an increase in cortisol switching off your immunity. If you happen to be in the process of recovering from injury or recent surgery, the loss of your immune system can have a disastrous effect on your body’s attempts to heal itself.
Inflammation: a direct example of the destructive self-perpetuating cycle of cortisol is inflammation. The main ‘anti-stress’ job of cortisol is to reduce inflammation. Any inflammation present in your body will have the direct result of your body pumping out even more cortisol, keeping your immune system switched off and your ability to heal trashed.
Sleep: worry usually contributes to sleep disturbance. Many of my clients report that they are either unable to get to sleep or once they are asleep they soon wake again in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, if you are getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night your body automatically begins to produce more cortisol. And here we have another perfect example of that destructive self-perpetuating cycle. Because when cortisol is either too high or too low in your system, the direct result is disturbed sleep.
Weight gain, or the spare tire syndrome: the constant stream of cortisol in your system stimulates your body to release glucose, or blood sugar, into your system while at the same time rendering your body insulin resistant.
Cortisol sends a message to your body to begin storing fat in specific cells located in your belly along with your face and neck. Ever noticed that when you are under ongoing stress you develop a little pot belly? And what do we tend to do when we feel as though we have gained wait? Increase the physical exercise. Remember what I said earlier about increased physical exercise? At high rates, cardiovascular exercise will turn your stress system on encouraging your body to produce even more cortisol.
We already know that ongoing stress often causes us to comfort eat, to seek carbohydrate rich foods. We crave carbohydrates when stressed because our body needs serotonin, and carbs help your body to produce serotonin. Unfortunately, a high carb intake combined with insulin resistance contributes to the spare tire syndrome mentioned above and frequently seen in people experiencing ongoing stress.
When these processes are ongoing you are at higher risk from developing metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes.
Destruction of you skeletal system: yes, this powerful hormone can actually cause deterioration of your bones! Excessive cortisol in your body can result in osteoporosis.
Brain damage: excessive cortisol is like acid in the hippocampal region of your brain. This part of the brain is primarily responsible for the processing of memories along with the regulation of emotion. This means that any damage here will result in problems with memory as well as mood related disorders such as anxiety and depression.
At the same time, your amygdala, that part of your brain responsible for fear and aggression, actually enlarges! So you will be more likely to experience anxiety, irritability and angry outbursts. Again, the self-perpetuating cycle continues. The more fearful and angry you feel, the more likely your body is to produce cortisol.
Libido: when the body is producing cortisol it ceases it’s production of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone directly influences sexual desire, without it your are probably not going to want to have sex with your partner. Again, this has the potential to create more problems, particularly if it is your relationship that is causing you stress in the first place!
Increased cortisol can also have a negative impact on your fertility.
Blood pressure: increases in cortisol will also raise your blood pressure while at the same time restricting your blood vessels. This makes you more of a candidate for a heart attack or stroke.
Wear and tear on your entire system: if this process of excess cortisol production occurs for long enough, eventually your entire system is impacted through wear and tear and begins to cease functioning effectively, often leading to permanent impairment. Your body is then at risk of adrenal fatigue and Cushing’s Syndrome.
What You Can Do:
Phew! Scary stuff, hey? When you understand the full impact of cortisol on your body, your emotional functioning, your life, it can be very frightening.
Fortunately, lifestyle factors can have a positive influence on your stress system. There are things that you can actively do to reduce the negative impact of cortisol on your body:
- One of the first things I recommend that you do is consult with a holistic GP. This specialist is usually trained in the medical aspects of the body and has a particular focus on hormones and nutrition. He or she will be able to help you to understand how your diet can have a very real impact on your hormone levels along with inflammation in your body.
- Another important area to focus on is improving your sleep. Your body needs more than 6.5 hours a night to lower it’s production of cortisol. Learn more about good sleep habits. Understand how diet can influence your ability to sleep.
- Actively work on down-regulating your system through gentle forms of exercise such as Tai Chi and Yoga. Reduce your high impact exercise to two sessions a week consisting of less than 20 minutes of cardio per session. You can calm your body and help it to relax, reducing the production of cortisol.
- Develop a meditation or mindfulness practice to help you to manage your mind and your emotions. I have included many free resources related to mindfulness on my website.
- Address psychological and emotional issues by talking to a psychologist. If you are experiencing daily stress then you are more likely to also experience anxiety and depression. Talking to a professional can help you to manage these conditions and again reduce your body’s production of cortisol.
If you are worried about managing stress on your own, and would like to talk to a psychologist, please call or text me on 0404 248 576.
Posted: Sat 11 Oct 2014