How Cortisol (Stress) Impacts the Body
There are many ways that cortisol negatively impacts our body.
Blood Sugar Imbalance and Diabetes
Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor.
However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.
Weight Gain and Obesity
Repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain.
One way is via visceral fat storage. Visceral fat is also considered “deadly fat”.
A second way goes back to the blood sugar-insulin problem.
Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose.
But those cells are crying out for energy, and one way to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain.
This can lead to overeating. And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat.
Immune System Suppression
Cortisol functions to reduce inflammation in the body, which is good, but over time, these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system.
Chronic inflammation, caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and stress, helps to keep cortisol levels soaring, wreaking havoc on the immune system.
An unchecked immune system responding to unabated inflammation can lead to myriad problems: an increased susceptibility to colds and other illnesses, an increased risk of cancer, the tendency to develop food allergies, an increased risk of an assortment of gastrointestinal issues (because a healthy intestine is dependent on a healthy immune system), and possibly an increased risk of autoimmune disease.
Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing all of the physiologic responses previously described.
As a rule, the parasympathetic nervous system must then be suppressed, since the two systems cannot operate simultaneously.
The parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated during quiet activities such as eating, which is important because for the body to best use food energy, enzymes and hormones controlling digestion and absorption must be working at their peak performance.
Imagine what goes on in a cortisol-flooded, stressed-out body when food is consumed: Digestion and absorption are compromised, indigestion develops, and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed.
This may sound familiar.
Ulcers are more common during stressful times, and many people with irritable bowel syndrome and colitis report improvement in their symptoms when they master stress management.
And, of course, the resulting mucosal inflammation leads to the increased production of cortisol, and the cycle continues as the body becomes increasingly taxed.
As we’ve seen, cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood.
This is advantageous for fight-or-flight situations but not perpetually.
Over time, such arterial constriction and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and plaque buildup—the perfect scenario for a heart attack.
This may explain why stressed-out type A (and the newly recognized type D) personalities are at significantly greater risk for heart disease than the more relaxed type B personalities.
Elevated cortisol relating to prolonged stress can lend itself to erectile dysfunction or the disruption of normal ovulation and menstrual cycles.
Furthermore, the androgenic sex hormones are produced in the same glands as cortisol and epinephrine, so excess cortisol production may hamper optimal production of these sex hormones.
Long-term stress and elevated cortisol may also be linked to insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, depression, and other conditions.