Cortisol, The Enemy
Cortisol is a stress-fighting hormone. The word “cortisol” sounds vicious to a bodybuilder, as it is well known for eating muscle. Muscular atrophy is the last thing a bodybuilder wants. Cortisol breakdowns muscle mass by converting protein into glucose via glycogenesis. The unfriendly environment is also unfavorable in the body. Science confirms that this hormone indeed wreaks havoc in the body.
However, cortisol, when released in the right quantity, has numerous benefits. The benefits of cortisol include stable blood pressure, reduced inflammation and a stronger immune system. This stress-fighting hormone converts protein into fuel when you’re under physical or psychological stress provoked by trauma. Once your brain recognizes that the threat no longer exists, your cortisol levels return to normal.
Corticosteroids, synthetic cortisol-like drugs, are used to treat health conditions. The steroidal hormone is usually administered as a last resort when an injury requires drastic measures.
Adverse effects of Cortisol
In theory, cortisol levels are higher in the morning and lower in the evening. However, modern life doesn’t allow for that. Late evening work of any kind releases cortisol in the body as a defense mechanism. Moreover, the modern stressors are repetitive in nature, so elevated cortisol levels accompany our present lifestyles.
I will quote Robb Wolf in his magnificent book titled, The Paleo Solution. He says, “The key difference between the stressors our ancestors faced and our modern stressors can be described thusly: frequency and duration. Paleo stress tended to be acute: short in duration and infrequent in occurrence. Modern stress, by contrast, tends to be constant and unrelenting.”
Long-term stress, because of our present lifestyles, can produce excess cortisol which can be very detrimental. Excess cortisol levels in the body can leave you open to numerous health complications:
1) Cortisol raises blood sugar levels. Importantly, (cortisol releases glucose and fatty acids from the liver) and when it releases more glucose in the body it blunts insulin, for insulin lower blood glucose levels. Since cortisol is known to decrease insulin sensitivity, you become insulin resistant. Long-term insulin resistance is one of the major causes of type 2 diabetes. It’s similar to continually eating a high-carb diet—which also leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is also known to store body fat around the waistline.
2) Though cortisol reduces inflammation, the body doesn’t need much of it. Since it acts as an anti-inflammatory it lowers the activity of the immune system. Positively, cortisol is also known to regulate and strengthen the immune system. However, too much of an immune response can lead to autoimmunity. Autoimmunity is caused by an overactive immune system. Many diseases can be fatal because of an overreaction by the immune system.
3) Cortisol also increases blood pressure. Although it acts as a diuretic, by causing water and potassium excretion, it also causes sodium retention. More cortisol means more sodium and less potassium, thus higher blood pressure. This further leads to more stress on the heart and kidneys.
4) Cortisol reduces protein synthesis and thus causes muscle loss. The reduction of protein synthesis results in halting of tissue growth. Ha! A bodybuilder’s nightmare! The reduced muscle mass further leads to increased fat storage, around the midriff area.
5) Cortisol reduces the production of growth hormone. Disruption of sleep caused by cortisol inhibits the release of growth hormone. A prerequisite for optimal growth hormone production is a good night’s sleep.
6) Cortisol regulates connective tissue strength. However, too much of it weakens the connective tissues. For example, elevated cortisol levels can cause wrinkles. It also causes osteoporosis.
7) Last but not the least, it causes lack of sleep, which in turn also leads to fat gain.
Stress management is the key to bringing excess cortisol levels under control. You can find numerous studies suggesting ways to manage stress. Such ways include eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, and making an effort to relax and enjoy relationships you have with others. But the question is how these factors help in managing stress. Handling stress depends on your psychological wellbeing. Fixing it by superficial means doesn’t help. For instance, studies suggest that one of the most potent ways to tackle stress is getting plenty of sleep. But how can you get plenty of sleep when you are constantly bombarded with continued stressful situations? Stress and sleep don’t go hand in glove. Your environment isn’t conducive to lowering stress levels. Thus, it leads to high cortisol levels.
The urban population is gravely affected by elevated levels of cortisol. However, you can breathe a sigh of relief and depending on an age-old practice that can save your well-being. The Eastern culture have been lauding the benefits of meditation for 1000’s of years, and now Western cultures, which relies solely on scientific evidence( brain imaging) are endorsing these eastern claims to be true. Meditation is one of the most powerful tools for tackling the menace of stress. Specifically, scientific studies discovered that meditators have reduced cortisol by 50% within a few short weeks. Meditation is also well known for increasing the quality of sleep. Several studies confirm that many age -accelerating hormones can be reduced within a few weeks of meditation practice. This is an extra benefit.
Practice meditation. It can enrich your life in several ways.