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What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation and fear.

It’s best known for fueling your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, but it also plays an important role in a number of other functions like:

  • Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle
  • Regulates your blood pressure
  • Keeps inflammation down
  • Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward

How does it work?

Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland, both in your brain, can detect if your blood contains the appropriate amount of cortisol. Your brain adjusts the amount of hormones it produces if the number is too low. These signals are then picked up by the adrenal glands which then regulates the amount of cortisol that’s released. 

Most cells in your body have cortisol receptors, which obtain and use the hormone in various ways. Your requirements will change from day to day. Cortisol, for example, can change or shut down functions that get in the way while your body is on high alert. Your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your development processes may be among them.

Your cortisol level should return to normal after the pressure or danger has passed. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal.

However, this can lead to a number of health problems, including:

Anxiety and depression
Heart disease
Memory and concentration problems
Problems with digestion
Trouble sleeping
Weight gain

Producing too much cortisol

Sometimes the body makes too much cortisol. This happens due to a tumour in the pituitary gland of the brain or a nodule (mass) in the adrenal gland.

This can lead to Cushing syndrome which causes rapid weight gain, easily bruised skin, muscle weakness, diabetes, and a variety of other health issues.

Too Little Cortisol

At other times, the cortisol levels may be too low. This may lead to symptoms like:

  • Changes in your skin, like darkening on scars and in skin folds
  • Muscle weakness that grows worse
    Being tired all the time
  • Low blood pressure
  • Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight

If your body isn’t making enough cortisol, your doctor may prescribe dexamethasone, hydrocortisone, or prednisone tablets.

Techniques for managing stress and cortisol secretion:

  • Breathing exercise
  • Sex
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Guided imagery
  • Listening to music
  • Meditation

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