Cortisol: How Stress Could Actually Kill You

We’ve all heard of the infamous “stress hormone,” cortisol. This adrenal hormone usually gets a bad rap for weight gain, acne, and poor sleep. However, without it, essential physiological functions that promote survival would not be possible, such as mobilizing glucose to muscles. Yes, I’m referring to that “fight or flight” instinct when we perceive any sort of threat in our surroundings, say if you encounter a bear on a hiking path. Almost immediately, your heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, senses sharpen, and beads of sweat appear. Epinephrine, better known as adrenaline, is responsible for this initial response. But what happens when the stress response is constantly stimulated due to anxiety from classes or financial matters? Cortisol is how your body adapts when you go into overdrive.

Stress is a normal physiological process that all living organisms experience; as I previously mentioned, it is an innate defense mechanism that aids in survival. However, when a stressor exceeds the severity and time of the initial response period, our body shifts into another mode to keep us alive. When sustained long enough above baseline, inflammation and disease ensue. A twentieth-century Hungarian endocrinologist, Hans Selye, described the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) as a set of responses that are highly similar across all living organisms. Of course, variations in GAS occur depending on conditioning factors such as genetics, environment, or comorbidities. For example, someone may secrete more cortisol than others in the same situation, and this tendency may even change at different life stages. Nonetheless, there are countless long-term consequences when cortisol levels remain elevated, resulting in a state of chronic stress. The hormone that we need for survival can also be the death of us. Stress can actually kill.

When cortisol is released in response to stress or fear, in a sense the alarm to take action and protect yourself has been sounded. However, trouble arises when the surge of cortisol cannot be expended or burned up and in effect accumulates in the blood. This is exactly what happens when we allow stress to creep into our daily lives and ultimately consume us–with no release. For example, when we’re anxious over looming exam periods, our adrenals constantly pump cortisol to provide us with the means to “fight or flight” and overcome the particular stressor; however, in this situation, there is nothing in our environment that we need to physically fight or flee from (even though we may want to). Chronically spiked cortisol levels influence learning and memory consolidation, immune defense, bone density, weight gain, blood pressure, and cholesterol, to name a few. High cortisol has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It can’t be “stressed” enough, normalizing cortisol levels is essential for lifelong health.

In our high-stress culture, how can we learn to decompress and give our adrenal glands a well-deserved break? The first step is to take a deep breath and step away from the screen—your phone, iPad, laptop, whatever. Limit distractions so you can be mindful of your mental and physical state. Breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing have been associated with reduced cortisol levels and an elevated sense of wellbeing. Even better, yoga not only provides the physical outlet to burn cortisol but also the cognitive tranquility and ease of mind. Don’t forget about the natural painkiller that’s released when we move our bodies and work up a sweat. Being active for as little as 20 minutes will boost endorphins, making us feel invincible and forget about our daily worries. So the next time you’re studying and convince yourself you’re too busy or behind to hit the gym, think again.


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Elizabeth Arruda

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.