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Cortisol: what is it? And what does it do?

Cortisol is a stress hormone, just like adrenaline. When your body experiences stress, adrenaline is produced first, followed by cortisol. Adrenaline (and noradrenaline) and cortisol are produced in the adrenal glands.

The difference between adrenaline and cortisol

Adrenaline is a super useful substance if you need to respond immediately, so within a fraction of a second. Think for instance of a situation in which you’re almost hit by a bus. Or seeing a child suddenly cross the street right in front of your car. Or when your partner almost falls off a cliff and you just manage to grab onto him. In these situations you want your body to instantly take action. Adrenaline enables you to do rapidly respond when necessary.

Cortisol on the other hand allows you to stay alert for longer periods of time, so you’re able to face a prolonged threatening situation the body experiences. So not just during that short moment you need to jump out of the way to not get hit by a bus. Or slam the brakes or hold onto your partner. Cortisol helps you deal with stressful situations for longer periods of time to allow you to perform at 110 or maybe even at 120% for a while.

What does cortisol do?

Cortisol increases your heartrate because it prepares you for an extended period of hard work and increased performance. Your increased heartrate means more oxygen is transferred through your body. This also leads to more sugar in your muscles, so your blood sugar rises.

By having more sugar, or so-called glucose, in your blood, your body receives more energy to allow for increased performance. Cortisol also improves your mood and therefore sets up your entire body to taking action for longer periods of time.

A familiar example of a healthy situation of the effects of cortisol concerns athletes preparing for an important game. A healthy tension leads to increased amounts of cortisol, and thus a better performance, because it makes your body alert and focused. After the match the tension subsides and the cortisol level returns to normal.

In this case, cortisol does what it needs to do; it helps you perform/survive, and returns back to a healthy concentration after the stressful period.

In short, cortisol allows continued good performance despite pressure.

What does cortisol do?

Cortisol during daily activities

Now, we might not all be elite athletes. The effects of cortisol also apply whenever we experience periods of stress during our daily activities.

For instance during that one deadline at work you really need to make. Not to mention all the possible overtime work that will come with, messing up your other engagements. Or a restructuring of your company that creates uncertainty about your position. Or a difficult period in your relationship that leads to tensions and arguments at home.

A child that’s sick for a longer period of time, which you worry about a lot or work extra night shifts for. Financial problems that cause stress because you’re not sure you’ll be able to pay the bills. Once again finding yourself in the middle of a huge traffic jam during your morning commute. It’s not just the traffic that causes stress, but also the fact you will arrive late at work again, with lots of work waiting for you or colleagues depending on you.

Cortisol helps you survive these periods. In fact, that’s the only thing your body is doing in that particular moment; “How do I survive this situation!?!”.

Is cortisol bad?

You might be thinking: is cortisol positive or negative? It can be both. During healthy situations it helps you perform and exert yourself for a longer period of time. However, when your body experiences stress for too long (or remains in fight-or-flight mode), the cortisol levels remain elevated.

Contrary to the cortisol levels in the athlete after playing his match, your stress hormone levels don’t go down. The body remains in survival mode and experiences no period of rest and recovery the athlete normally does. Because of this, your body no longer pays attention to or spends energy on important bodily functions or processes.

After all, surviving is more important than growing your fingernails. Or properly circulating the blood and keeping your entire body warm, or digesting your food or supporting your facial skin. This has no major short-term effects on your wellbeing. But if this continued stress, also called chronic stress, persists you could definitely develop health problems.

Read more: recognizing stress: How do you recognize stress signals from your body?

The consequences of too much cortisol

Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol can cause the following issues:

Sleeping problems

Sleeping problems, including not being able to fall asleep, not being able to get up in the morning because you still feel tired, and waking up at night and not being able to go back to sleep.

The consequences of too much cortisol

Overweight

Cortisol causes an increased production of insulin in your body. This is a substance that increases the absorption of sugar in your muscles. As we mentioned before, these sugars arrange for more energy in your body. If this energy is not used, these excesses are stored in the form of fat reserves.

Muscle deterioration

Cortisol causes your body to always stay ‘on’, requiring more energy in the form of glucose to keep running. The body uses protein from muscles to produce more glucose. Proteins are the building blocks of your muscles, so whenever glucose is produced it is at the expense of your muscle mess. You will quickly notice that cortisol has a negative influence on athletic performance.

Brain shrinkage

Elevated cortisol levels affect the hippocampus. This part of the brain plays an important role in the memory process and regulates the production of cortisol depending on the situation. Prolonged stress desensitises the hippocampus.

This disrupts the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which could increase the emotional and physical damage.

Exhaustion

All physical and mental reserves run out because your body has performed above 100% for too long. You no longer have any more sources available to properly function.

cortisol: what is it

Intestinal problems

Since your body is in survival mode, blood is diverted from the digestive organs, which can lead to stomach pain, diarrhea or constipation. Cortisol also has a major impact on the gastrointestinal tract.

Aging

Less energy is spent on the renewal and construction of cells, because your body has other priorities. It is shown that cells under stress damage and age more quickly.

Depression

During stressful situations, the body rapidly searches for prior events in order to solve the situation. If the memory contains a lot of negative events, there’s a chance this leads to negative feelings. Therefore, if stress is experienced for a longer period of time, these negative thoughts will also continue.

Failing immune system

Longer periods of overload is often the cause of a suboptimal immune system. This makes you more susceptible to viruses and diseases. So, excess amounts of cortisol can cause you to get sick more often.

Off balance because of stress

The issues listed above show that too much cortisol can completely knock you off balance, with your body stuck in survival mode with greatly elevated cortisol levels. Positive effects of cortisol turn into disastrous ones when they continue for too long. It furthermore leads to a negative spiral that’s hard to escape from (a lack of sleep leads to more stress, which leads to a greater lack of sleep, and so on).

In order to lower your cortisol levels and alleviate its negative consequences, it’s important to address the issue at the source. Even though someone’s unbridled efforts should be praised, it’s not healthy for anyone to performance beyond his limits for longer periods of time. If a car is pushed too hard on a daily basis, its engine will eventually break down. You could of course blame the engine and try to improve it, or you could accept the fact it just can’t go any faster.

The same applies to the body: it’s an illusion to expect performance beyond 100% for a longer period. This longer period could amount to 10 or 15 years, which means the hit will be seriously hard when it’s finally ‘over’.

cortisol: what is it

Lowering your cortisol levels

The most important thing to do is to find the cause of the stress. You can strengthen yourself by taking the tips listed below to heart and obtaining a balanced lifestyle. It’s however difficult to exercise or be physically active 2 to 3 times a week if you experience huge amounts of stress, and you’ll need more coffee, will have more shallow breathing and will crave more fast food.

Use the tips to break the vicious cycle and actively work on the causes of your stress.

Exercising/Playing sports

When you exercise your body produces hormones including endorphin. These hormones regulate the production of cortisol. Exercise will also lead to a h2er and more resilient body and mind, enabling you to face new stressful situations more effectively.

Having fun

The right hormones are also produced when you’re having fun. When you’re doing things that excite you, you will have positive thoughts and won’t focus on stressful, negative things.

cortisol: what is it

Breathing exercises

Many people don’t realise they’re breathing the wrong way. Improper breathing consists of breathing too quickly or shallowly. This is often caused by stress, but stress can actually be alleviated by breathing properly. I use a very simple breathing exercise: I inhale through my nose, exhale through my mouth, and rest. Normal breathing takes place about 8 to 10 times a minute. Four to five times will suffice during a breathing exercise, but that depends on the person.

Also read: Hyperventilation and incorrect breathing: how do you deal wit this?

Good nutrition

Coffee, alcohol and consuming a lot of fatty foods contribute to higher cortisol levels. My advice regarding this subject is tob e sensible. Don’t start dieting by no longer eating certain nutrients (especially when you are burnt out), but make sure you adopt a healthy, balanced diet. This article includes a healthy eating pattern during stressful situations.

Keeping a balanced cortisol level

Come into action! It’ll be clear to you that you should lower your cortisol level if you’re experiencing a lot of stress or find yourself in an extended stressful situation. Also do this if you don’t experience any of the aforementioned symptoms. Prevention is better than cure, and it will save you a lot of time and energy in the long run.

Do you realise you need to spring into action, but do you lack the motivation or do you prefer not to undertake this on your own? Feel free to contact us to discuss the possibilities.

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About Milltain

Milltain supports, with a team of experienced trainers, organizations in the prevention of stress and the (re) finding of work happiness in the workplace. Our training courses are aimed at managers within companies. A burnout quickly costs the organization € 70,000.

In addition to financial suffering, human suffering is great. Not only for the employee but also for close colleagues who have to deal with the blows. Before you know it you are in a negative vicious circle.

Do you want an effective approach to long-term absenteeism and increasing work pleasure? (instead of extinguishing continuous fires).

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About the author
My name is Ruud Meulenberg. Owner and founder of Milltain and Meulenberg Training & Coaching.
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