Cortisol, our stress hormone

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Interesting how we learn in layers. In my pursuit of understanding as completely as I can how the body works, first I learned how we can develop health complaints by eating the wrong foods, exercising too little or too much, and not getting enough sleep. But the reason our lifestyle is so fundamental to our health is because everything we do – every mouthful of food, every bout of exercise or lack thereof, every thought and emotion we have, as well as how much light or darkness we expose ourselves to has a hormonal consequence in the body.

Because an imbalance in one hormone affects the others, poor lifestyle choices have far-reaching impacts on our systems, and cause widespread, seemingly unrelated symptoms.  For example, we may get insomnia or feel lethargic a lot, we may put on weight and be unable to lose it no matter how much exercise we do, we may become depressed, we may feel too hot or too cold a lot, if female, we may have difficult periods and the worse our hormone balance is the worse our symptoms at menopause.

AND it works the other way! If our hormones are off, we crave particular foods (usually the ones that will make us worse), we are not tired at night so we don’t want to go to bed, we feel down so we start thinking thoughts that bring us further down. If we don’t improve our lifestyle in order to bring our hormones back into balance, over time we may get a disease. So, because of how vital hormone balance is to our health, I have become fascinated by the endocrine system, a topic I found hopelessly boring in physiology class way back when.  I am no expert in this, so any endocrinologists or biochemists out there reading my tips, if you see a mistake please let me know so I can correct it.

We have four endocrine glands that spit out hormones as needed – the thyroid, the pancreas, the ovaries/testes, and the adrenals. The thyroid puts out T4, the pancreas is responsible for insulin, the ovaries and testes give us our sex hormones, and the adrenals put out adrenaline otherwise known as epinephrine, aldesterone and cortisol. After a woman has gone through menopause and the ovaries are out of commission, the adrenals also make estrogen and progesterone although in lesser amounts.

All of these hormones interact with each other, so if one hormone is out of whack it affects the amounts and functions of all the others. The endocrine glands not only communicate amongst themselves, but they also talk to the nervous system and the immune system as was scientifically proven by Dr. Candace Pert and discussed in her book Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine.

Because in my estimation, problems with cortisol are the most common and underlie so many health complaints, I figure it is the best place to start. As I have said in many other tips, cortisol is the hormone that gets secreted when we are under physical, emotional and spiritual stress.

Physical stress includes acute stressors like a car accident or medical emergency, and chronic stressors like constant pain, poor nutrition or food sensitivities, dehydration, too much or too little exercise, too little sleep. Emotional stress is usually chronic and includes stuff like financial stress, relationship stress, work stress, time stress, and spiritual stress may include things like conflicts between one’s religion and one’s sexuality, one’s choice of life-partner (different religion possibly), or one’s occupation.

No matter what the source of stress, cortisol is released into the blood stream to help us cope by increasing sympathetic tone (fight and flight response), and to put sugar into the blood stream so our muscles and brain have the fuel needed to react.

When we look at that list, it becomes pretty obvious why so many of us may have problems with cortisol! Cortisol should be high in the morning, but should subside by evening when our rest and repair system (parasympathetic system) is supposed to take over.

Cholesterol is the base material  from which many of our hormones are made.  Cholesterol gets converted into pregnenalone, which then manufactures cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone.  So, when cortisol is needed to help us cope with stress, cortisol gets prioritized at the expense of the other hormones. Your body figures that if you are under stress, reproduction is not important, so progesterone and DHEA (which builds testosterone) are sacrificed to make cortisol, for example. This causes major PMS symptoms in females, as progesterone is needed to balance estrogen.

Adrenal fatigue eventually occurs if one is under prolonged stress. In Stage 1, cortisol and DHEA levels increase, but if the stressors don’t go away and one moves into Stage 2 adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels remain high, but DHEA becomes depleted. Finally in Stage 3, the adrenals give up. They simply cannot sustain the prolonged need for cortisol, so both cortisol and DHEA levels drop. At this point, one can’t handle much. These people often can’t work, and after one short activity or appointment they are done for the day and have to go home and rest. Frequently the diagnosis of chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia is given.

So can you see that taking sleeping pills to help one sleep, taking Midol to relieve PMS symptoms, taking stimulants like caffeine and sugar to get through the day, Synthroid for low thyroid, or anti-depressants to boost mood may really only be addressing symptoms of problems with cortisol, but not the cause?  By removing various stressors through improving the lifestyle factors described in these tips, one can help the body return to hormonal balance.  Using functional medicine to measure circadian cortisol, DHEA, and sex hormones, interventions can be made to help the body return to homeostasis.

Much of the info in this tip came from Bev Maya, a medical herbalist in the Vancouver area that practices functional medicine.

Related Tips
How hormones, neurotransmitters and steroids work
Mind and body; psyche and soma
Adrenal Fatigue
Acute vs. chronic stress

Lecture by Bev Maya, Westcoast Women’s Clinic, July 11, 2007

Wilson, James Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome Adrenal Fatigue, 21st Century Stress Syndrome Smart Publications, Petaluma, CA 2001.

Tsigos C, Chrousos GP.Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, neuroendocrine factors and stress. J Psychosom Res. 2002 Oct;53(4):865-71.

Laugero KD.Reinterpretation of basal glucocorticoid feedback: implications to behavioral and metabolic disease. Vitam Horm. 2004;69:1-29.

Raison CL, Miller AH. When not enough is too much: the role of insufficient glucocorticoid signaling in the pathophysiology of stress-related disorders. Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Sep;160(9):1554-65.

Chrousos GP, Kino T. Glucocorticoid action networks and complex psychiatric and/or somatic disorders. Stress. 2007 Jun;10(2):213-9.

Eller NH, Netterstrøm B, Hansen AM. Psychosocial factors at home and at work and levels of salivary cortisol. Biol Psychol. 2006 Oct;73(3):280-7. Epub 2006 Jul 5.

Sjögren E, Leanderson P, Kristenson M. Diurnal saliva cortisol levels and relations to psychosocial factors in a population sample of middle-aged Swedish men and women. Int J Behav Med. 2006;13(3):193-200.

Adam EK, Gunnar MR. Relationship functioning and home and work demands predict individual differences in diurnal cortisol patterns in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001 Feb;26(2):189-208.

Tanriverdi F, Karaca Z, Unluhizarci K, Kelestimur F.The hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis in chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia syndrome. Stress. 2007 Mar;10(1):13-25.

Adrenal and Metabolic Interpretive Guide, Biohealth Diagnositcs Inc. 2006
Chronic Stress – The Number 1 Source of Illness

Chronic Stress Response Chart

Steroidal Hormone Pathway Chart

Copyright 2007 Vreni Gurd

www.wellnesstips.ca

4 Comments »

  1. emma said,

    April 8, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    i went to see my specalist and he said i have got raised cortisol hormone wot does this mean and what are the risks

  2. Dr. David DeLapp said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    Hi Vreni,
    You asked for clarification in your article if needed. You have some of the functions of cortisol confused with the functions of adrenalin. Adrenalin increases sympathetic tone – in fact adrenalin is the “hormonal” version of the sympathetic neurotransmitter epinepherine. Cortisol is released at the same time as adrenalin because it is to calm down the immediate inflammatory effects of the adrenalin.
    The Hans Seyle 3 stage model of adrenal fatigue was shown to be false about 20 years ago. It is now known that the adrenals can and do move around between all three stages all the time – not in a linear forward progression as Seyle taught.
    The latest neurochemistry findings show that hormone levels are most profoundly controlled by brain neurochemistry balance – such things as the balance between serotonin and dopamine in different brain areas and the effects of brain inflammation in these areas.
    Otherwise I enjoyed your article helping to point out the complexity of the interactions of the different systems in our bodies.
    Thanks,
    Dr. DeLapp

  3. Vreni said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    Thanks, Dr. DeLapp! Are there any references you can point me to in order to help me understand more fully? I’ve wanted to understand the connection between the neurotransmitters and the steroid hormones in particular via the HPA axis for some time, but haven’t found a good resource yet.

    Thanks again,

    Vreni

  4. gucci messenger bags said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    Its nice to see good comments. It makes it even more enjoyable!

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