The chemical structure of cortisol

Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol, commonly known as hydrocortisone, is the major hormone secreted by the adrenal glands when the body is under stress. Cortisol is critical when the body is under attack—whether the attackers are predators, invaders like viruses, bacteria, or allergens, or perceived attacks like stressful jobs, difficult relationships, or toxic environments.  Whether you’re coming down with the flu, frustrated in a traffic jam, or in tears over a break-up, your body’s biochemical response is the same: cortisol mobilizes glucose so you can run fast and think quickly.  It increases epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine output so your heart can beat faster, increasing the blood flow to your muscles, brain, and heart.  It regulates your immune system.

Robert Sapolsky’s book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers ”  helps us understand the stress response.  When a lion chases a zebra, the zebra’s cortisols shoot up so he can run fast and think quickly to escape the lion. And if the zebra survives the chase, he returns to eating grass, while his cortisols return to stable levels (until the next lion comes along).  But in our modern lives, our cortisol output is chronically elevated—we’re not literally being chased, but our body responds as if the lions are at our heels.

Cortisol is King

Chronically elevated cortisol can lead to all kinds of problems: abnormal glucose metabolism, elevated blood sugar, hypertension, sleep disarray, thyroid dysfunction, decreased bone mass, decreased muscle mass, lowered immunity, and abdominal weight gain.  But cortisol is also essential to life–all the other hormones “defer” to cortisol.  Cortisol governs thyroid function and regulates the immune system. The production of progesterone, estradiol, testosterone, and DHEA–all hormones of the steroid hormone cascade–will decrease, shunting their pathway to make way for cortisol, in order to assure adequate levels of this essential hormone.

Adrenal Burnout

And after years of chronically elevated cortisols, the communication between our brains and our adrenals can get skewed, with cortisol secreted at inappropriate times–like at 3 AM–when it should be low, leading to insomnia. Ultimately, the adrenals can’t sustain these high cortisol levels and adrenal output falls, resulting in fatigue, depression, apathy, compromised immunity, and a general decline in well-being.

Learn how to relax
Lifestyle changes are essential to restore healthy adrenal function.  A high protein, low glycemic diet along with replacement of essential nutrients helps to manage blood sugar, fatigue, and immune function.  Many complementary therapies such as meditation, hypnosis, and exercise can normalize your stress response and help your adrenals to heal.