The Negative Effects Of High Cortisol Levels: What Stress Does To The Body | UMZU
By Sara Novak
Cortisol has become a hot topic as of late. Everybody is stressed, whether it is being cooped up in your house for too long or being nervous about your job or the economy. Stress happens. It is everywhere and the healthiest among us learn to manage stress, because if you do not manage it, it can cause any number of chronic conditions. Here is what happens to your body when you are constantly under stress.
What’s fight or flight?
We evolved from cavemen that required an acute stress response to escape the physical threats of living outside with huge beasts that could attack them at any time. From sabertooth cats to North American lions, cougars, and dire wolves, threats were everywhere. Like other evolved mammals, our stress response makes us faster and stronger, all in an effort to help us fight or flee. The only problem is that the body’s glandular systems cannot tell the difference between a real or perceived threat. That means that no matter whether you are running away from a lion, jumping from traffic, or anxious that you might lose your job, the body experiences the same stress response.
As the threat happens, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, sending a message to the pituitary and adrenal glands to release stress hormones. The most famous of which is cortisol. Other important hormones like adrenaline are also amped up in the body. Once activated, a chain reaction of events starts to unfold. Including the following:
- Increased respiration
- Increase perspiration
- Dilated pupils
- Constriction of the blood vessels
- Pale or flushed skin
According to Harvard Health, “the hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles.”
Flight or flight mode has its purpose, but it is not supposed to be something that we stay in for a long period of time. We are supposed to escape the threat and then move on from it, with the body moving back to a normal state. But what if that does not happen? What if your body is perpetually in a fight or flight mode? Your goal is to have the parasympathetic nervous system take back over once a threat has passed. And if you do not, you could suffer from a range of unpleasant conditions that are not good for your overall health.
12 Negative effects of high cortisol levels
If you are stressed all the time, it is best to learn to manage your symptoms. Here is what you need to know:
As mentioned above, part of the acute stress response is constriction of blood vessels which can cause hypertension. A study published in the journal Primary Care found that “improved recognition and clinical evaluation of the relationship between environmental stress and hypertension will assist the primary care physician in the management of the blood pressure variations associated with daily life.” Another study, published in the American Journal of Hypertension found that stress reduction through meditation may be useful at reducing hypertension.
2. Anxiety and Depression
High levels of morning cortisol or cortisol that does not lower during the day, is also associated with anxiety and depression. Cortisol levels should be at their highest in the morning when most mammals are the most active and then should go down again in the late night, when most of us are asleep. Those of us with high cortisol levels throughout the day, may find it hard to calm down. A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that “symptoms of anxiety and depression among individuals without a psychiatric diagnosis are associated with blunted and exaggerated cortisol responses to and recovery from stress.” Another study published in the journal Annals of Clinical Psychiatry found that “serum and salivary cortisol levels are elevated during anxiety.”
3. Heart disease
Other research has also shown that chronically high plasma cortisol levels were associated with heart disease and a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that high fingernail and hair cortisol levels were associated with acute coronary events in middle aged and elderly men. Another study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that high cortisol levels were linked to an increased risk of heart disease in men. The bottom line is that research shows that stress is not good for your heart.
4. Alzheimer’s disease
As you age, high cortisol levels have been associated with problems with memory retention because stress impacts the same parts of the brain. Those with higher cortisol levels have been associated with early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. A study published in the journal Neurology found that “higher serum cortisol was associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory in asymptomatic younger to middle-aged adults, with the association being evident particularly in women.” Another study published in the journal The National Review of Neurology found that depression (which has been linked to high cortisol levels) has also been associated with dementia later in life.
If cortisol is constantly coursing through your body, it can be hard to sleep. Especially if cortisol levels are still high in the evening. A study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics found that “research has “shown increased cortisol levels, decreased immunity, and increased markers of sympathetic activity in sleep-deprived healthy subjects and those with chronic insomnia.” Another study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that “pre-sleep salivary cortisol was higher in insomniacs than controls.” The problem is that stress hormones lead to insomnia, which makes stress levels even higher the next day. The bottom line is that you have to take steps before bedtime to reduce cortisol in the brain by deep breathing, practicing meditation, journaling, reading a relaxing book, spraying lavender on your pillow, and taking a hot bath. At the same time, stay away from screens, excessive alcohol, caffeine, and heavy meals.
6. Weight gain
When you are stressed, you tend to crave foods that do not do your body any good. That is—high fat, high carbohydrate, and high sugar processed foods that do nothing but add to your waistline. When we are stressed, it can also tire us out, making us not want to cook. As a result, we grab fast food or whatever junk we can stuff down our pie holes. A study published in the journal Obesity Reviews found that “stress may be a barrier to making diet and exercise changes needed to achieve long term control of body weight.” Another study published in the journal Domestic Animal Endocrinology found that patients with abdominal obesity have elevated cortisol levels.
Part of what makes us faster and stronger in a fight or flight response is the release of glucose into the body to give us energy. This is not inherently a bad thing until it happens over and over again. Elevated blood sugar levels over time have been linked to diabetes. One of the easiest ways to reduce your blood sugar levels is to find ways to manage stress in your life. Just like with sleep, you have to find regular activities to keep your stress in check whether it is surfing, qigong, skate boarding, hiking, mindful walking, swimming, meditating, or yoga. Find whatever relaxing activity that you love and stick to it. This way you will eat right, exercise, manage stress, and do all the things that help keep your blood sugar down where it needs to be.
8. Muscular tension
You can feel your shoulders inching up towards your ears. Your neck is tight and your jaw is clenched. When you go to get a massage, it takes them an hour to break through the frozen muscular tissue. When stress is a problem, so is muscular tension. We clench and stiffen when we are stressed and no matter how hard we try, it can be hard to unwind. Getting regular massages can help, as can taking a minute every hour or so to remember to unclench your jaw, soften your shoulders, and stand up and stretch. Whenever you feel muscular tension creeping in, take a moment to de-stress and you will be glad you did.
9. Low libido
When stress is high, you are less likely to want to get it on. While there should have been a baby boom during the pandemic, there was not. In fact, the opposite happened and while I have no research to back this up, I know of tons of COVID divorces. You do not want to have sex when you are worried about everything else. A study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that women’s sex drive was greatly influenced by controlled cortisol levels. Another study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that “women who showed an increase in cortisol had lower scores on the Arousal, Desire, and Satisfaction domains of the Female Sexual Function Index.”
10. Poor digestion
Fight or flight slows down the parts of the body that you do not immediately need for survival. If you are running from a sabertooth tiger, that is just not the time to be digesting your lunch. If you are stressed all the time, then you may notice changes in your digestion. It may make you constipated or it could make your stomach upset, causing diarrhea and stomach cramping. This should not be a huge surprise considering that your gut has its own brain. When you get butterflies in your stomach because you are nervous about something else, it can make it hard for your digestive system to function normally.
11. Fertility problems
I have known more than a few couples that had problems getting pregnant because of the fear that they would not be able to. The stress places a heavy burden on your reproductive system and your ability to ovulate or produce high quality sperm. Part of trying to get pregnant should be about keeping cortisol and stress levels in check. A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology “provides preliminary evidence that longer term systemic cortisol may influence reproductive outcomes.”
If you are having trouble sleeping because you are stressed, then you are dealing with exhaustion the next day. Stress can do a number on your mood, even when it is not causing anxiety or depression. Sometimes, if you are in constant fight or flight mode, that in itself can tire you out. It is hard to think of anyone else and how you are treating people when stress hormones are constantly controlling your brain and endocrine system. If you notice that you are not yourself, consider taking a step back and looking at what may be causing your sour mood. Try not to blame the world for your stressors. Remember, fight or flight is meant to happen and then be over; if it is a regular part of your life experience, then it is worth taking a closer look at what is causing the high cortisol levels in your life.
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