Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a steroid hormone, released by the body relating to stress response.  Almost every cell has a receptor site for this hormone and based on which type of cell cortisol attaches to, different reactions in the body including metabolism regulation, inflammatory responses, and blood pressure surveillance will occur.  The release of cortisol is controlled by the HPA (Hypothalamic, Pituitary, and Adrenal) axis within the body.  When there is too much or too little cortisol, the body will increase or decrease the levels of cortisol to adjust for the body’s current demands; this is the body’s natural negative feedback loop.

When the body is under stress, it will keep cortisol levels higher in the blood as a natural response to a threatening situation most commonly known as “fight or flight”. One of the ways that cortisol affects the body, is by allowing protein stored in the liver to be quickly converted into energy. This quick access to glucose is used for energy during a threatening situation.  The problem is that in today’s chronically stressed environment, cortisol levels are constantly elevated for reasons other than survival.  This causes the body to over produce glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.  When the body does not use glucose, it is eventually stored in the body as fat.

A side effect of cortisol is that is nullifies the effects of insulin. Insulin is the signal to cells to let glucose in, but high blood glucose levels with cortisol causes insulin suppression/resistance.  A chronic state of stress can lead to an increase risk of insulin resistance and type II diabetes.  When the body has cortisol present, it causes cells to not let in glucose, but they still want energy. When cells are asking for energy, signals are sent to the brain to feed the body.  When the body is fed, but cortisol levels are still high, insulin will still not be let into the cell. This pattern is a never ending loop that can lead to overeating and unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat.

The easiest way to decrease cortisol levels is to decrease stress; obviously this is not an easy task.   Even trying to change the reaction to a stressful situation is quite an undertaking.  However, a simple way to help yourself and your body is to breathe.  Take a few moments at the beginning of the day, before a meal, in a stressful situation, and breathe. Taking a deeper exhalation than inhalation allows the parasympathetic nervous system to be activated and release acetylcholine, oxytocin, and dopamine allowing your body to feel relaxed.

References:

Wilson, James L., ND, DC, PhD. “Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.” United States. 2009. Smart Publications.

Aronson, Dina MS, RD.  “Cortisol — Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy.” Today’s Dietitian. November 2009 Issue. Vol. 11 No. 11 P. 38. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml