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What Is Cortisol?

Learn how this stress hormone can go from helpful to harmful when it’s stuck on overdrive
Written by 
Holly Pevzner
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

You know that too much stress is unhealthy—it’s well-established, for example, that chronic stress and heart disease often go hand-in-hand. But you may not know how elevated stress does its damage to your body. Many of its effects are believed to be brought about by cortisol, sometimes called the stress hormone. Understanding how cortisol works may encourage you to manage your stress to improve both your mental and physical wellbeing.

Cortisol is actually a vital component of our survival and success. Think caveman days: You encounter a wild animal. The hormone kicks in, boosting your blood sugar levels, heart rate and blood pressure for a quick hit of energy that allows you to escape. At the same time, cortisol puts the breaks on body functions, like digestive and reproductive systems, that aren’t necessary—or are perhaps even detrimental—during the encounter. While you may not come across many dangerous critters these days, cortisol still has an important role to play in your life. When you’re feeling stressed—because of an oncoming car or a last-minute a deadline, for example—your body automatically releases cortisol to help you tackle the “danger” you’re facing.

But cortisol has another side. “Under conditions of acute stress, cortisol helps the body respond in a protective way,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. However, when you’re chronically stressed out (whether it’s a real or perceived danger), your body gets stuck in this fight-or-flight mode and your adrenal glands overproduce cortisol. “High cortisol levels for long periods of time are dangerous,” Dr. Liponis says.

It’s a classic example of too much of a good thing. In small amounts, cortisol uses your body’s fat stores, carbohydrates and protein in a useful manner. But when excess cortisol is continuously pumping through your system, your body gets confused and fat ends up accumulating around the abdomen. This visceral fat causes inflammation that is linked to a greater risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. An overabundance of cortisol can also increase the body’s production of glucose and further compound your risk of insulin resistance and diabetes. But that’s not all. “Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes, leading to such problems as thinning bones, osteoporosis, cataracts, weakening of the immune system, damage to the gastrointestinal tract and memory loss,” Dr. Liponis says.

Should you completely avoid stress? Not only is that impossible, but some level of stress helps you stay safe and productive. The key is to learn to manage stress to keep cortisol from impacting your health. For starters, try focusing your attention on your heart beat for a few seconds when you feel anxiety creeping in. Place your hand on your chest and feel it rise and fall with each breath. Inhale and exhale deeply, noticing your heart rate slow down. (You’ll also notice your body relax right along with it.) Whether it’s through deep breathing exercises like this, aerobic activity, weekly massages or another technique, finding a way to calm your stress will help calm your cortisol levels, too. 

Our article 10 Surprising Tips for Managing Stress can help you come up with more ideas, like drawing on humor to shut off the fight-or-flight response.

More: Understanding Belly Fat

Reference(s) 
Mayo Clinic
University of California, San Francisco
About the author 
Holly Pevzner is a health and nutrition writer living in Brooklyn, NY.