The killer effect of stress isn’t just an old wives tale. Chronic stress is hurting the long-term health of Australian’s more than ever¹, but how does that affect our cortisol levels or is it the other way arounds? In this short post I explain (in plain speak) some basic facts about cortisol, a unique hormone that’s great when it’s working, and a killer when it isn’t.
Stress is on the rise, you’re not surprised?
It probably comes as no surprise to read that. Our fast paced of modern life has a price. How much we pay partly depends on our ability to manage stress. Experts from many fields agree that stress, and by association cortisol levels, will continue to rise in Australia¹. It already affects a far larger proportion of the population per capita than previously so we thought we’d take a closer look.
Disclaimer: TestoChecker® have been providing cortisol test kits since 2016 and they have learned to manage test requests in a way that minimizes the effort required on our client’s part.
Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland. It’s needed for everyday tasks requiring energy, immune function, and staying alert to your environment. Cortisol is part of the ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived danger that at one time could be an huge asset, and possibly still could save your life.
Each day our body produces cortisol in a pattern designed to assist us. When functioning correctly, our day should begin with a boost of cortisol in tune with the suns rising. One of the ways it does this is by binding to receptors on fat cells, which in turn elevates glucose levels for the muscles to use. This gives us the energy we need to go-out-an-get-em. By the time the sun sets that cortisol should be long gone, allowing for melatonin production to begin so sleepiness can settle in.
During rest periods, our cortisol reverts to its inactive from, cortisone, until the next time it is required. Usually this would be when you wake in the morning. This is referred to as the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR).
How are Stress and Cortisol connected?
The answer is by design. When the brain stimulates its release in response to physical or emotional stress, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol into the general circulation. So stress triggers cortisol (not the other way around), and cortisol provides a boost designed to assist in a confrontation or any kind of emergency.
The problem is that our environment is changing, at least in the big cities. Financial pressure, pressure to succeed and the increasing complexity of our jobs are just some of the many new-growth stresses we face. Remaining ‘on alert’ means we could be creating to much cortisol, too often.
Can Cortisol cause damage?
If we stay stressed, our body isn’t reverting cortisol back to its inactive form cortisone when it should be. The resulting build up of cortisol can stuff up thyroid function, lower the production of sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone), disrupt metabolism (making it hard to lose weight and to control blood glucose levels), and lead to high blood pressure and weakened immunity.
A lot of research has been done into the effects of hormones including cortisol on the unborn baby.
One study has identified a link between raised cortisol levels in the amniotic fluid (womb) and decreased brain function in children. Further research carried out by British academics² and published in 2013 has shown that exposure to excessive levels of cortisol in the womb can lead to mood disorders later in life.
Cortisol controls our blood glucose levels
It can also wreak havoc on our sleeping patterns by preventing the production of melatonin, leading to further stress.
Pregnancy can be a very stressful time so to be told to “avoid stress completely” has just a hint of indifference to that, but hey it’s doing ones best that counts.
If we stay stressed, our body isn’t reverting cortisol back to its inactive form cortisone when it should be. The resulting build up of cortisol can stuff up thyroid function, lower the production of sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone), disrupt metabolism making it hard to lose weight and to control blood glucose levels.
According to Professor Megan Holmes (University of Edinburgh, UK), “The stress hormone cortisol may be a key factor in programming the fetus, baby or child to be at risk of disease in later life. Cortisol causes reduced growth and modifies the timing of tissue development as well as having long lasting effects on gene expression,”
How is Cortisol collected and tested?
Not only is saliva perfectly suited to measuring pulsating hormones like cortisol³, using saliva means we don’t need to take multiple blood samples in one day. Returning to the doctors surgery at all hours is impractical, and possibly painful too. No needles no blood, just simple to do saliva sample collection which can be done at home. Samples should only be analysed by laboratories with NATA accreditation and takes between 5 and 10 working days.
Here are three widely used cortisol tests:
Please note: Not suitable for people using prednisone/prednisolone therapy.
The Cortisol Awakening Response (sometimes referred to as ‘the mini stress test’), which includes three samples taken at thirty minute intervals upon awakening. This measures the expected rise and fall in the hormone which our bodies rely on to prepare us for the day ahead.
Another is the 24 hour cortisol(comprehensive) which provides a complete picture of the cortisol daily output. This is a four point test taken over a full day.
Finally the adrenal function extended profile which measures cortisol at four points over twenty four hours as well as the DHEAs. Low DHEAs indicates cortisol irregularity and is a handy clue when assessing adrenal function. Ideally, both of these hormones should be present in the right proportions, and with typical cortisol behaviour patterns observed.
The results of these tests include Charts and Graphs for easy interpretation. An personally applied summary is also included by the testing laboratory. Most valuable of all, advice is provided in cases where an irregular result is discovered. This applies to each hormone tested.
Why we need to Listen to our Hormones
Don’t forget that sharing hormone test results with a qualified doctor is a good idea, especially if an irregularity is detected. If we value our health and wish to live a long life, we need to listen to our bodies, not ignore them. Hormones are like the ‘canary in the coalmine’, they can provide an early warning of some looming health issues, and for that very reason, should never be ignored.
That’s all and thanks for reading.
G. Saywell | GM
TestoChecker Hormone Test Kits™ | Ph: +61293271336 | Office: L 13 465 Victoria Ave, Chatswood, NSW, 2067, Australia.
Remember - Always see your GP immediately if you are experiencing pain or discomfort.
Sources cited for What’s So Important About the Stress Hormone Cortisol?: ¹Malays J Med Sci. 2008 Oct; 15(4): 9–18 PMID: 22589633. | ²Professor Megan Holmes is a neuro-endocrinologist from the University of Edinburgh/British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Science in Scotland (UK) | Department of Pharmacology, School of Pharmacy, Hebrew University Medical Centre Jerusalem, Israel. ³Endocrinology Unit, Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences, Centre for Applied Biomedical Research (C.R.B.A.), S. Orsola-Malpighi Hospital, Alma Mater University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Document remains current at 06/10/2022.
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