The Cortisol-Stress Connection
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Cortisol assists you in regulating blood pressure, cardiovascular functions, and your body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Cortisol is also involved in glucose metabolism, insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, and inflammatory response. Cortisol helps in responding to and coping with stress, trauma and environmental extremes. Normal levels of cortisol increases energy and metabolism and helps regulate blood pressure. Cortisol also enhances the integrity of blood vessels and reduces allergic and inflammatory responses. [Aeron Biotechnology, 2010]
The Stress Hormone
Under normal circumstances, your body maintains or regulates your natural cortisol levels. Most healthy adults have a high cortisol level first thing in the morning and a low cortisol level at night. But when you’re feeling stressed, your body secretes more cortisol. Cortisol is frequently referred to as the “stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s fight or flight response to stress. It is also responsible for several stress-related changes in your body. Small increases of cortisol produce positive effects like improved memory, reduced sensitivity to pain, and increased sustained energy. However, elevated cortisol levels from prolonged or chronic stress can cause side effects such as suppression of thyroid function, cognitive impairment, increased blood pressure, decreased bone density, and blood sugar imbalances. High levels of cortisol can also lower your immunity and inflammatory responses, as well as slow down the wound healing process. [Cortisol and The Stress Connection. John R. Lee, M.D. and Virginia Hopkins Virginia Hopkins Health Watch, One-to-One Inc., 2009]
Chronic Stress Increases Cortisol in the Body
Chronic stress leads to chronically high levels of cortisol in your body. This creates a need for higher levels of other hormones (e.g. thyroid, insulin, estrogen and testosterone) in order to do the same job. Chronic high concentration of cortisol is toxic to brain cells and can cause short-term memory loss. A lifetime of high cortisol levels may be a primary contributor to Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia. High cortisol is also a primary cause of osteoporosis. [Aeron Biotechnology, 2010].
Cortisol, Stress, and Your Weight
The Cortisol hormone serves many important functions in the body such as regulating blood sugar and blood pressure and providing energy for exercise and activity. Cortisol also plays a key role in the immunity and healing processes. [Greenspan F.S., Stewler G.J. (eds): Basic and Clinical Endocrinology. Appelton & Lange, Stamford, CT 1997] When your body is stressed, either physically or emotionally, it secretes Cortisol.
Cortisol is part of the fight or flight response. Faced with a “life or death” situation, Cortisol increases the flow of glucose (as well as protein and fat) from your tissues and into the bloodstream to increase energy and physical readiness to handle the stressful situation or threat. The problem is we often deal with stress mentally, and never respond to stress with physical activity that would burn the extra energy provided by the Cortisol surge. Whether your stress was emotional or physical, the stress response is identical, causing a spike in your appetite. This can cause a craving for comfort foods-foods high in fat and sugar. [D. Reynolds. Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Gain: Hormonal Response Can Cause Weight Loss Failure, 2007]
The body stores unused stress energy around the abdominal organs, Belly Fat. Accumulation of this type of fat, known as visceral fat, is most damaging to health, leading to an increased development of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. [D. Reynolds. Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Gain: Hormonal Response Can Cause Weight Loss Failure, 2007]
The meaning of “emotional eating” is now quite clear. Fatty and sugary foods relieve stress, but at what cost? If you are stressed, you may not be satisfied by a meal unless it contains fats or sugars.
At Stress Less Workshops, we teach proven Life Skills designed to help you get a handle on managing your stress. Imagine living a calm and centered life, free from emotional eating forever!