Chronically elevated cortisol levels and the endocrine system

Endocrine System

The endocrine system is made of several glands and cells that secrete hormones to the bloodstream and eventually through the body to control many functions.

Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is made from cholesterol in our bodies. Cortisol is used for many function in the body, but is mainly used for depressing the immune system, anti-inflammatory effects and metabolism. It’s also knows as a “stress hormone”. 

In “hunter gatherer” times, cortisol was released in our body when we came upon a situation where we needed to decide to “flight or flight”, say from a saber tooth tiger. In nerdy science terms, the hypothalamus in our brain signals the pituitary gland to initiate cortisol production from the adrenal glands (adrenals glands sit atop our kidneys). Cortisol will thwart the effect of insulin (allowing glucose to enter cells), creating a high blood glucose level which provides the bloodstream with quick energy incase it needs to “fight or flight” from its stressor (the tiger). Through negative feedback, the body will eventually signal the brain to slow down the release of cortisol and the body will return to normal when it is no longer in danger. 

In modern times, our stressors look a bit different when compared to the saber tooth tiger. It could be:

  • Financial Stress
  • Fighting with a loved one
  • Not agreeing with your boss
  • Parenting
  • Helping care for a loved one
  • Being stuck in traffic
  • An overpacked scheduled
  • Over exercising
  • Not fueling your body properly with food

Our bodies are not able to differentiate between a saber tooth tiger and an argument with our boss. It still responds with the same stress response. So what happens when we are constantly stressing our bodies out? 

Inflammation

Cortisol has the responsibility to help control inflammation in the body by suppressing the reaction. Over an extended period of time, it also supresses the immune system. With a suppressed immune system our body is more susceptible to things like the common cold, food allergies, gastrointestinal issues, autoimmune diseases or even cancer. 

Adrenals

When our bodies are in a high stress state and working overtime (adrenal fatigue) to produce cortisol, the natural reaction for our body is to steal nutrients from other common reactions such as our metabolic rate process and reproduction system. When we don’t have the proper pre-cursors to hormones like progesterone, estrogen or testosterone, our  pituitary gland gets a response back letting us know there is trouble. This results in feelings of fatigue that isn’t fixed by sleep, trouble sleeping, depression, anxiety, decreased libido, foggy brain, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, hormonal imbalance or trouble with memories. 

Thyroid

The thyroid is located in our neck near the esophagus and is one of the big players in regulating metabolism, growth, and development and controlling oxygen usage and enhances cholesterol excretion in our bodies. Two of the thyroid hormones produced here are T3 (inactive) and T4 (active). The thyroid is extra sensitive to stress in the body and can block the conversion of T4 to T3 in our bodies. Common disorders that occur when T4 to T3 conversion is blocked is Hashimoto’s and Grave’s Disease

So how do you being to lower your cortisol levels?

The most basic steps include:

  1. Getting adequate sleep
  2. Exercise, not high-intensity work.
  3. Make time to relax – read a book, journal, meditate 
  4. Get outdoors, even for a quick hike or just a walk 15 minutes a day
  5. Eat a well balanced diet full of nutrient dense food and minimal sugary foods.
  1. Tortora, Gerard J., Derrickson, Bryan. Introduction to The Human Body, The Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology. Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons, INC, 2015.

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