Today is National Stress Awareness Day, so it makes sense for me to write about cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, produced by the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. You need it to survive, so even though it’s known as the stress hormone, production happens naturally throughout the day anyway. It’s what’s lacking in patients who are adrenal insufficient.
Cortisol production actually starts to happen when you’re asleep, at around 3am, so that by the time you need to wake up, you’ve got enough energy to get up and start the day. It makes up part of your body’s circadian rhythm, which is like your body clock, meaning that cortisol is at its highest in the morning and decreases as the day goes on. It’s used for pretty much everything in the body, from digesting your food to your fight or flight response.
When you feel stressed, cortisol production increases to help you get out of the stressful situation. In caveman days, it used to kick in when you were in physical danger, giving you the instinct and energy to get out of danger quickly (run away) or fight whatever animal was attacking you. That doesn’t happen to most of us now (thank god!), but cortisol production increases for other stressful things like busy meetings, emotional stress, not having time for lunch, arguments, car accidents, kids having tantrums… Think about how many times you might be stressed or anxious in the day at work- that’s cortisol production increasing to help you out and manage the stress on your body. Without it, like for people like me, your body could go into shock and start to stop functioning at even a basic level.
Adrenal Fatigue or burnout is something which keeps getting thrown around by the media. It’s not actually a recognised medical condition by endocrine foundations, but for some reason people still refer to it as though it is. Cortisol also seems to be a buzz word used a lot in the media, almost like a ‘fad’ to try and get people to subscribe to their supplements, diets and regimes, usually aimed at women. In a magazine I read today, it said on two consecutive pages:
- reduced levels of cortisol can be an indication of a serious medical condition and you should do X to help with it.
- increased levels of cortisol can be an indication of a serious medical condition and you should do Y to help with it.
Both pages listed pretty generic symptoms for stress which most people would experience at some point in the week, a handful of foods you could eat to prevent low/high levels and said that cortisol was the stress hormone. Factually, they’re both correct statements, you don’t want to have increased or decreased cortisol, but the conditions are pretty rare, so it’s unlikely that the average person reading the magazine will have either. And if they do, they definitely wouldn’t be cured by doing the things it suggested (mine definitely wouldn’t anyway). How are you supposed to know if your cortisol levels are ‘wrong’ anyway? Neither consistently low or high cortisol levels are signs of a ‘healthy’ individual, and because it’s an ever changing level, to try and ‘keep them low/high’ is a silly notion anyway: you want and need them to move around according to what your body needs at any given time.
There’s no point in worrying about a chemical just because a magazine has told you about it. But minimising stress in general has lots of good implications for the body- rather than saying you can banish stress by drinking green gunk and eating seeds, people should address their busy lifestyles instead and look at the changes that can be made there. And, in doing so, you’ll be able to maintain healthy cortisol levels!