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Stress and High Cortisol: Role, Symptoms & Causes



What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that is made and released by the adrenal glands. Hormones are chemicals that help synchronise the various functions in your body. They carry messages from your blood to the different organs and help your body fulfill its various functions. Adrenal glands are small, triangular glands located on top of your kidneys. 

Cortisol is your body's main stress hormone. It is called the stress hormone, as its levels in your body increase when you are faced with a stressful situation. 

Let us understand more about stress and the role of cortisol in the body and how high levels of cortisol can affect your health.

Stress and the Role of Cortisol in Your Body

Cortisol is an important hormone that prepares your body to face stressors of different types. When you sense danger, your body prepares you for fight or flight to protect yourself. 

For example, when you encounter a stressful situation, such as an accident on the road, your hypothalamus, which is a tiny area at the base of your brain, sets an alarm in your body. With the help of hormonal signals, the alarm system prompts your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline.

While adrenaline increases your heart rate and your blood pressure, cortisol, which is the main stress hormone, increases sugar (glucose) in your blood and also your brain's use of glucose.

It increases muscle tension and halts the digestive system, which causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea

Such an effect of cortisol causes discomfort and fear, but it helps you to protect yourself and your loved ones from danger and carry out survival strategies. 

Once the stress has passed, cortisol and adrenaline levels decrease, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal and the other systems also resume their normal activities. 

What Does Cortisol Do to Your Body? 

Cortisol is a vital hormone that plays many essential roles, as follows:

  • It maintains your body's response to stress.
  • It controls how your body uses fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
  • It regulates blood pressure.
  • It maintains blood sugar.
  • It controls inflammation.
  • And, it controls your sleep-wake cycle.

What are the Other Effects of Cortisol on your Body?

Every cell in your body has cortisol receptors; therefore, cortisol affects every organ and system in your body in the following ways:

  • It helps in the formation of memory.
  • It acts as an anti-inflammatory.
  • It regulates the functioning of your immune system.
  • It regulates your growth.
  • And, it maintains the balance of salt and water in your body.

Symptoms of High Levels of Cortisol in the Body

Having high levels of cortisol for a long time is considered Cushing's syndrome. Symptoms of Cushing's syndrome are as follows:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis or weak bones
  • Muscle weakness in upper arms and thighs
  • Fatty deposits between the shoulder blades
  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings, anxiety and depression
  • Purple stretch marks on the stomach
  • Increased thirst and frequent urination
  • Excessive hair growth

What Causes High Levels of Cortisol?

Your body monitors your cortisol levels continuously, as higher than normal or lower than normal cortisol levels can harm your body. However, certain factors cause high levels of cortisol in your body, which include the following:

  • Stress: Stress and cortisol go hand in hand. Constant stress can cause high levels of cortisol as you feel you are constantly under attack
  • Medications: Certain medications, such as corticosteroids that are used to treat asthma, arthritis and some cancers, if taken in high doses for long periods cause high levels of cortisol.
  • Adrenal Gland Tumours: Adrenal gland tumours can be cancerous or noncancerous and can produce high levels of cortisol.
  • Neuroendocrine Tumours: Neuroendocrine tumours in other organs, such as the lungs, can also cause high cortisol levels in your body.
  • Pituitary Gland Issues: The pituitary gland is located at the base of your brain. Conditions related to the pituitary gland, such as tumours, can trigger the adrenal glands to release excess cortisol.

What are the Treatment Options to Reduce Cortisol Levels?

If you experience symptoms of Cushing's syndrome, your doctor may suggest the following:

  • Cortisol urine (Cortisol - Free Urine 24H) and blood tests to measure the level of cortisol in your blood and urine
  • Cortisol saliva test to check if you have high cortisol levels
  • CT scans or MRIs to observe your pituitary and adrenal glands for tumours or any abnormalities.

If you have very high levels of cortisol or Cushing's syndrome, you will need medications or surgery.

To lower your stress and cortisol levels, you can try the following practices:

  • Learn to manage stress by being aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension. This will help you recognise stressful thinking and curb it before it worsens.
  • Make regular exercise a part of your everyday schedule. Exercise lowers cortisol levels, reduces stress and releases feel-good hormones called endorphins. Exercising also helps improve your mood and sleep. 
  • Get enough sleep. Chronic sleep issues like insomnia and sleep apnea increase cortisol levels. Create a sleep schedule and turn off digital gadgets an hour before bedtime for better, uninterrupted sleep.
  • Practice deep breathing exercises to relieve stress and lower cortisol levels. 
  • Practice meditation. It helps you manage your stress, increase awareness and focus on the present moment. Meditation also helps you look at stressful situations from a new perspective. 

Summing Up

Please consult your doctor or a therapist if you find it difficult to manage everyday stress. Chronic stress and cortisol are linked to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Making lifestyle changes and learning to manage stress will help you live a healthy and happy life. 

To measure your cortisol levels, your doctor may order cortisol urine and blood tests. Always get these tests done at a certified pathological laboratory like Metropolis Healthcare. Metropolis is India's leading diagnostic service provider that guarantees quick results to ensure timely treatment. 

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