Cortisol is often the cause of anxiety, restlessness, constant fatigue, and yes unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight. If you’re raising your hand right now, like that’s me, then you’re in good company. More than 77% of Americans report experiencing stress and all the drama that occurs alongside it.
So what the heck is cortisol anyway? Cortisol is your stress hormone. Cortisol levels vary throughout the day, but in general, cortisol is released in response to stress you experience, regardless of whether or not it’s real or perceived stress. The actual definition of stress is the generalized, nonspecific response of the body to any factor that overwhelms or threatens to overwhelm the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. So in short, anything that makes you feel overwhelmed, is likely stressing you out!
The problem though is most of us feel stress on a daily basis.
Stress shows up in our jobs, our relationships, our finances, and our kids. In fact, the most commonly reported causes of stress are health care, taxes, the economy, divorce, and death. If you lump all those into categories, it sums up to be finances and relationships. Unfortunately, essentially all of those things we can’t really escape, so the majority of us walk around internalizing those categories of stress daily for extended periods of time.
At this point, I have probably made stress and cortisol out to be the bad guys. Actually though, cortisol helps our body to handle acute stress and that’s why we need it and how cortisol is helpful to us. You see, stress is really designed to be short-term, or in the healthcare field, we use the term acute stress. Here’s the challenge though, our body can’t tell the difference between real or perceived stress which is essentially acute or chronic stress. It responds the same way, and unfortunately, we have taught our bodies that checking our email is stressful, or trying to figure out what to cook for dinner while taking care of the kids and doing laundry is stressful, or the fact that husbands seem to get a pass on doing all things at home even though y’all both went to work today, that all those things are stressful. And I’m not trying to be biased toward women here either.
I don’t think you’re surprised by that though…
But back to cortisol…. As I mentioned earlier, we need cortisol, it’s essential for our sympathetic nervous system or what is known as our fight or flight response. Cortisol prepares our body for action, suppressing any body system we don’t need in a flight or fight situation. For example, in the presence of cortisol, your blood pressure and heart rate increase, your body stores fat and suppresses the immune system. So cortisol is pretty important, I mean it literally regulates almost every system in our body!
However, we need cortisol at the right time, not all the time….
What’s the right time, you ask? Well, that’s where acute vs. chronic stress comes in.
Acute stress is what stress is intended to look like, danger with a side of urgency. When that happens, the body signals the sympathetic nervous system to spring into action releasing the hormone/neurotransmitter, epinephrine, or what is more commonly called, adrenaline. Cortisol is released and it prioritizes getting blood to the major organs, like the muscles and the brain. And to increase your energy, adrenaline triggers the release of glucose and fat to signal that initial surge of adrenaline. So things like digestion, well, not so important….
And then there’s chronic stress. Chronic stress is what does the real damage to our health. Chronic stress is long-term stress. It’s the kind of stress I talked about in the beginning, “perceived stress”, work, money, your schedule, your relationships, your responsibilities. In the presence of chronic stress, there’s no reset button telling the body to shift over to the parasympathetic nervous system, your time for rest and digestion. In the absence of that reset, you live in an environment of action, keeping the hormones and neurotransmitters you need for flight and fight active, even though there’s no real emergency. But remember your body can’t tell the difference.
So for your body, the hormones released during stress are getting you ready for “go” time. It can’t focus on things like weight loss, balanced blood sugar, and optimizing your gut health. Instead, all those things get deprioritized, and over time chronic stress is associated with weight gain, prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, poor gut health, adrenal fatigue, and cardiovascular disease. We have to retrain our bodies how to handle stress. We all will inevitably experience stress, it’s how we handle it that can impact our health long term.
Stay close to the blog to learn more about how chronic stress impacts our overall health.