Cortisol is the most important of the glucocorticoids, a group of steroid hormones that are produced by the adrenal gland and serve a range of immunological, metabolic, cardiovascular, and homeostatic functions.
Cortisol was nicknamed the “stress hormone” because the body produces it in response to stress in order to prepare for difficulties. There are three main ways that it gears the body up for trouble: boosting blood sugar levels, raising blood pressure, and suppressing the immune system. To prepare the body for wounds and burns, cortisol also fights inflammation, which is why the synthesized compound cortisone is used in many rash creams and nasal sprays. A simple blood test can determine whether cortisol levels are sufficient.
Inability to produce enough Cortisol is called Addison’s Disease, a deficiency that can cause fatigue, skin discoloration, nausea, and diarrhea. It can also lead to autoimmune disorders like arthritis because the immune system relies to some extent on cortisol to wind down when it has finished repelling invaders.
Each of the emergency measures that cortisol triggers raise the chances of surviving a tense, short-term situation. However, if cortisol levels remain high for long periods of time, you are at greater risk for problems like heart-disease and viruses. It makes sense to put the immune system on hold to save energy for a marathon, but not to go without such a crucial defense for months.
Chronic excess of cortisol is called Cushing syndrome. It can cause a wide variety of symptoms, such as headache, weight gain, impotence, and skin infections. Cushing syndrome can be caused by tumors or an overactive pituitary gland, but, unfortunately, it is also easy for the tribulations of daily life to provoke a chronic stress response. Chronic cortisol overabundance can lead to emotional problems such as depression and anxiety disorders. If you begin to have trouble sleeping or experience frequent headaches or irritability, then you may want to explore stress-reducing activities such as exercise or meditation. The key to health is balancing stress so that you have enough to overcome obstacles but not so much that your body breaks down.