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Stress and Cortisol

Stress has been experienced from the beginning of our existance, yet the scientific understanding of stress has only developed over the past 70 years. Hungarian scientist Hans Selye pioneered modern stress studies during the 1930s and 1940s when he discovered the importance of the adrenal glands in mediating the biological effects of stress.

Your adrenal glands are two tiny pyramid-shaped pieces of tissue situated right above each kidney. They produce and release, when appropriate, certain regulatory hormones and chemical messengers.

Adrenaline is manufactured in the interior of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal medulla. Cortisol, the other chemical from the adrenal gland, is made in the exterior portion of the gland, called the adrenal cortex. The cortex also secretes androgens, estrogens, and progestins. Cortisol, commonly called hydrocortisone, is the most abundant -- and one of the most important -- of many adrenal cortex hormones. Cortisol helps you handle longer-term stress situations. If stress goes on too long and cortisol levels have stayed too high for too long this can lead to eventual adrenal fatigue and burn-out.

Science has discovered the LHPA (limbic-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis as the neurohormonal regulator of the stress response. Whenever a person experiences something as stressful—whether an internal or external stressor—emotional reactions (often unconscious) in the limbic system of the brain trigger the hypothalamus to secrete CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone). The CRH then triggers the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which activates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol into the bloodstream. Although both CRH and ACTH have stress-mediating roles in their own right, cortisol is the chief “stress hormone.”

When cortisol blood levels become excessive, this turns off CRH release in a negative feedback loop. Circumstances of stress overcome negative feedback regulation of the HPA axis, leading to a marked rise in the production of corticosteroids [i.e. cortisol].

If the stresses in our life are only occasional, and we take adequate time for rest, relaxation and sleep to restore LHPA equilibrium, then occasional stress cortisol release will not be a problem. Yet if we live a typical modern American lifestyle, we are subject to chronic stress, with inadequate nutrition, rest, relaxation and sleep, and are subject to chronic excessive cortisol levels. It is important to realize that while everyone has the same psychobiologic stress machinery (the LHPA axis), the stressors that can trigger a stress reaction are infinitely variable. Almost any type of physical or mental stress can lead within minutes to greatly enhanced secretion of ACTH and consequently cortisol as well, often increasing cortisol secretion as much as 20-fold. Even imaginary stressors, such as fearfully imagining a future event (e.g. an upcoming court trial or IRS audit), can trigger the LHPA axis into stress overreaction.

The Dark Side of Cortisol
Since cortisol is an essential stress protection hormone, why should we worry about too much of it? Some cortisol is essential for life. Serious cortisol deficiency produces Addison’s disease, a potentially fatal illness. Cortisol is necessary for normal brain, immune, muscle and blood sugar function, and blood circulation. Yet excessive cortisol is equally damaging.


Too much cortisol causes:

Abdominal obesity

High blood sugar (“adrenal diabetes”)

Muscle wasting

Bone loss

Immune shutdown

Brain (hippocampus) atrophy

Poor wound healing

Thin wrinkled skin

Fluid retention



Excessive cortisol frequently causes increased:

Fatigue/decreased energy


Impaired memory

Depressed mood, decreased libido



Impaired concentration



Social withdrawal

Feelings of hopelessness

Chronically excess cortisol may contribute to many diseases, including cancer, ulcers, heart attacks, diabetes, infections, alcoholism, strokes, skin diseases, psychosis, and possibly Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis. Cortisol excess may contribute to obesity not only because of the metabolic derangements (including insulin resistance) that it promotes, but also because it induces “stress overeating,” especially (but not only) in women.

Stress (Cortisol) Management

Eating steadily, all day long. Skipping meals is one of the worst things you can do for your body. When you're hungry, your blood sugar drops, stressing your adrenal glands and triggering your sympathetic nervous system. That causes light-headedness, cravings, anxiety and fatigue.

Skipping breakfast is particularly bad, as it is a sure fire way to gain, not lose, weight. If you start each morning with a good breakfast and "graze" healthfully every two to four hours, your "metabolic flame" will burn evenly all day and your blood sugar won't take any sharp dips. You'll feel more rested and energetic. Another drawback to skipping meals: The resulting low blood sugar can slow the speed at which you process information and shorten your attention span.

Sleep eight to nine hours a night.

Eat protein with every meal. Eat Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice. Avoid sugar, junk food, white pasta, white rice, white bread.

Absolutely NO Caffeine. Coffee/Sodas over stimulates your adrenals. They deplete important B vitamins.
Coffee does not give you energy; coffee gives you the illusion of energy. Coffee actually drains the body of energy and makes you more tired, because of vitamin and adrenal depletion. 

Exercise to relax. Walking, YOGA, deep breathing, stretching. Not vigorous or aerobic exercise which further stimulates cortisol production.
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