Cortisol: Is It Good Or Bad ? (Part 1)

We like to view things in the human body as either good or bad instead of taking context into account.

Both nutrition and the human body are so intricate that if you make something good or bad without applying context you can end up very misguided.

The hormone cortisol is no different. In the right amounts and at the right times cortisol is an extremely beneficial hormone to our health, and is downright necessary.

On the other side too much of the same hormone creates a host of problems in the body including muscle breakdown, excess belly fat and hormonal dysfunction.

Cortisol has gotten its name dragged through the mud, but there’s a positive side to cortisol as well.

In this blog we are going to bring some cortisol clarity by discussing the good, the bad and the ugly of cortisol.

What is Cortisol ?

Cortisol is a hormone that falls into the glucocorticoid family, and is produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol is produced and secreted in reaction to a stressor, and also follows our sleep wake cycles.

Cortisol is synthesized from cholesterol.Your body  actually makes many of your hormones including testosterone and estrogen from cholesterol.

Because cortisol follows our circadian rhythm with highs and lows throughout the day, it is highest early in the morning to promote feeling energized and alert when we wake up.

As the day progresses cortisol tapers off and reaches it lowest point very early in the morning.

When cortisol drops at night it allows for the production of melatonin, which aids in falling and staying asleep.

How Stress And Cortisol Work In The Body  

The stress response begins in the brain with a perceived environmental or psychological stressor, activating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight)

Your adrenal glands are triggered to release the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.

Epinephrine and norepinephrine cause the physical arousal due to stress: increased heart rate,vasoconstriction, heightens alertness and sweating.  

Cortisol is released last and triggers the mobilization of stored glucose and fat cells to supply energy, and shuts down digestion, immune and reproductive function

Your brain can perceive and set off this stress response before you realize it’s happening.

This is why people can catch a falling baby or avoid a speeding car even though they aren’t paying attention to the situation. Your brain is more aware than you are!

If the brain perceives there as being a continued threat such as with chronic stress the stress hormones production will continue to keep the body on high alert.

When the threat passes the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) is activated to bring us back to homeostasis, and allow us to recover from the stressful event.

In everyday life we are far more likely to have unpaid bills, be late to work or have an argument than an actual life threatening stressor.

Your body goes through the same process for all stresses, regardless of the source.

These cortisol spikes are supposed to be infrequent and short in duration, but the modern lifestyle many of us live is riddled with chronic low grade stressors.

These chronic stressors set off this cortisol response all day long which we are not adapted to handle!

Cortisol And Stress

When we encounter a stressor and the body can’t mobilize enough glucose there is a process that is triggered by cortisol named gluconeogenesis that helps the body create glucose from other molecules.  

Gluconeogenesis causes the breakdown of protein into amino acids, and combines the amino acids in the liver with fatty acids to produce glucose. Those amino acids will likely be pulled from your muscle mass. 

Cortisol also helps to pull glycogen from the liver and muscles to shuttle into the bloodstream and provide glucose to fuel the stress response.

In a stressful situation cortisol is what allows us to handle a stressor appropriately  and have enough fuel to support the fight or flight response.

Stay tuned as next week in Part 2 we will be discussing how cortisol causes dysfunction in the body, and the steps you can take to naturally reduce cortisol in the body. 

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