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What Does Cortisol Do and Why it’s Important

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands and its primary role is to support your body during times of stress by counteracting its effect. Adrenalin is for dealing with immediate stress, while cortisol is the backup plan for stress that is ongoing. It achieves this goal in the following ways:

  • Adrenalin that is released during stress increases glycogen (sugar that is stored in the liver) in the blood stream, but cortisol will increase the synthesis of glycogen.
  • Many people are under the false impression that it is cortisol that gives you belly fat, but that is not really accurate. It is adrenalin that causes belly fat in response to stress. Adrenalin, not cortisol, tells the liver to dump its glycogen into the bloodstream, which prompts an insulin response and the storage of fat.
  • It increases proteolysis and lipolysis, the breakdown of protein and fat for energy.
  • Reduces inflammation like a natural Prednisone.
  • When stress is present, it isn’t a good time to lay down new bone, so cortisol will prevent bone formation.
  • It decreases histamine release, providing natural allergy relief.
  • Cortisol helps us adapt to stress by sensitizing our tissues towards noradrenalin and adrenalin.
  • Immune function is also inhibited during stress by cortisol, because all energy is needed for managing the stress.
  • Cortisol stimulates gastric acid to assist with digestion, as digestion is impaired in times of stress.
  • It also has an inhibitory effect on insulin, preventing it from getting too out of control.

Cortisol performs all these functions so that we can maintain homeostasis as we go through stressful periods and return to the status quo after it passes.

As you can see from this list, you would be in big trouble if you didn’t have enough cortisol, however, if cortisol is high all the time, that can be problematic as well. Too much and there are likely to be issues such as weakened immune function, impaired brain function, high levels of anxiety and fear, panic attacks, lower bone density, muscle loss, and insomnia. Not enough and you are likely to experience things like fatigue, loss of energy and stamina, blood sugar issues, inflammation, chronic pain, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. A large part of the population is at one end or another of this spectrum. Like most things in the body, balance is the key.

If one is experiencing chronic stress, then the demands for cortisol will be very high. If cortisol levels remain abnormally high for extended periods of time, then eventually the adrenal glands will become fatigued or exhausted and begin to lose their ability to produce cortisol. This can become both a cause and the result of dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system.

Excessive demand for cortisol may also result in cortisol steal (all the precursors that are needed to create our other hormones are stolen to create cortisol) which leads to an imbalance in other hormones like progesterone, estrogen, DHEA and testosterone. So keeping it in balance with the proper diet and a variety of stress management techniques on a daily basis is critical.

Cortisol is synthesized from cholesterol, so having sufficient levels of cholesterol (above 160) is vital for production.

cortisol saliva test can be used to assess your levels; if you discover you are high or low, then a variety of interventions can be made to restore them to balance. If your levels are high, that means you are experiencing a lot of stress on your system, but it also means your adrenal glands are still strong and able to meet the demands. If your levels are too low, then that means you are in a more advanced stage of exhaustion, and your body is having trouble meeting the demands. Recovery is a much harder and longer road when the levels are low. In either case, in order to heal, the focus should be on eliminating all the different stressors that may be causing the levels to be high or low.

You can learn more about this life-sustaining hormone, adrenal fatigue, and burnout in my Adrenal Recovery Basics Webinar and/or contact me today to develop a comprehensive self-care plan to enhance your health.


Dr. C.E. Gant, Webinar, Endocrine (Adrenal) Stress #2 7-15-10

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