Cortisol is complex. Charles WalkerIt works together with other hormones, like insulin, thyroid, and more. It increases when we’re stressed. It can look ‘normal’ on blood and urine tests even when it’s through the roof. It can annihilate your short term memory, thicken your belly and rust your veins. But it’s also a life source. It gives us energy, focus and turns on systems that keep us ticking. Like insulin, cortisol is important. Very important. Without it, we literally wouldn’t wake up.
Our brains switch on in the morning thanks to it, and it keeps us going when we’re low on blood sugar, feeling homicidal. Cortisol mobilises fat for us, gives us energy when we need to get things done, and kicks our cells into burning more glucose when we need some extra power. By nature, it’s one of our most powerful anti-inflammatories (heard of cortisone?). So why the fuss? Because we have, as the fitfam exclaims, one hundred times more ‘stress’ than our grandparents. What does this mean? Grandpa was meditating? No.
To figure out where this stress comes from, we need to define the word ‘stress’. Stress can be thought of as anything that hurts us, or throws our body’s normal function off balance. It challenges our ‘homeostasis’. For example, our thoughts can stress us – we can measure stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline go up when we’re angry, sad, frustrated, or getting emails from our boss. This is psychogenic stress (psycho = mental, -genic = created). Bad food can stress our cells (fried chicken, ice cream and pizza = more cortisol!) because the food is burnt, it has heavily oxidised oils in it (never cook with olive oil!), AGE’s (advanced glycation end-products, which cause inflammation), and gives our digestion a serious run for its money (our bodies aren’t great at digesting Big Macs and Sundaes).
Toxic stuff like inhaling as a car or truck goes by, filling our lungs with carbon monoxide or diesel, can also cause our cells to stress out. Think of it as low grade smoking, which is also a great way to get cancer. It’s not lost on me how ‘hand wavy’ and new age this can sound, but this is the most important part of dealing with modern day stress, which has too many people on a highway to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Successful Stress Management We have plenty of stressors day and night, that we didn’t have 40+ years ago. Constant emails, heavily processed factory food, never-ending light, infinite electronic devices communicating via microwave radiation (your iPhone uses microwaves, the World Health Organisation has labeled it a potential carcinogen), chemicals being introduced into farming and food production. The advancements aren’t the problem, the problem is how our bodies respond.
It’s usually not good news, and it usually produces more cortisol. Cortisol is made in your adrenal glands. This is why some stress relief supplements are called “Adreno-soothe” etc. It is always being produced to some extent to keep us in good health, because without it we won’t survive. It can mobilise fatty acids when produced acutely, but stressing out as you know is not the answer to getting shredded (otherwise I’d tell clients to become bankers). When produced for long periods, it becomes harmful and through several ways, fattening.
Cortisol assists the body in a number of ways. One way is by increasing blood glucose. (Remember: when blood glucose and insulin get too high, for too long, your cells stop responding to the insulin, and you develop type II diabetes.) Cortisol boosts blood glucose via gluconeogenesis. ‘Gluco’ = sugar, ‘neo’ = new, ‘genesis’ = create – literally, ‘create new sugar’ – occurs in the liver. So imagine, now we are stressed, our body makes extra cortisol to help us deal with it, and we start making extra sugar to release into the blood. For a short period of time, that’s totally fine. In fact, it’s great! It helps keep us healthy. However, if we maintain this stress for a long time (because we have 100x more stress than grandpa), then the extra cortisol becomes seriously bad news.
A timeline 1. Stress hormones (i.e. cortisol) increase blood sugar in response to stress. 2. Extra sugar in the blood and in the cells, long term, is really bad for humans – fat gain, heart and artery disease, brain disruption, insulin resistance, diabetes, inflammation etc 3. You’re now stressed, and fatter. So where does your body just get this sugar from, you ask? Your body gets the materials to ‘create new sugar’ from protein. No, not from those extra fat cells hanging around your ass. Your body, in an attempt to reduce the stress put on it, will use its own amino acids, starving your muscles or breaking them down, to make sure it has enough glucose to live out this stressful period. This is why having excess protein when you are overweight, obese, or trying to cut bodyfat to very low levels, can also derail your efforts – it can turn into sugar. 4. You’re now stressed, fatter, and can’t put on muscle, because cortisol stole your gains. This is why dealing with stress is a big issue today. It increases our risk of every disease, including big guns like cancer and heart disease, and other nasty stuff like dementia and Alzheimer’s. It increases our resting blood glucose, without us doing anything else. It stops our muscles from recovering, and makes us tired before we even get out of bed. The more research that comes out, the more we see how modern day stress is a bigger issue than we realised. See the issue? P.S. One caveat to the mess of cortisol is that it increases human bonding. Cortisol increases oxytocin, the hormone released by mother and child during breastfeeding – it causes tight bonds to develop. This is one reason why after going through stressful periods in war, soldiers become extremely close.