Why Is Cortisol Important?

Cortisol is a hormone that is mainly released during times of stress. Cortisol usually gets a bad reputation, but it has a number of functions within the body, and having the right balance of cortisol is essential for our health, as too much or too little cortisol can lead to problems.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol belongs to a family of steroid hormones, also known as glucocorticoids. It is secreted from the adrenal cortex, which is located on top of your kidneys in your adrenal glands.

Cortisol is the main glucocorticoid in humans, and glucocorticoids affect every cell in the body, making them very important. In particular, glucocorticoids released within the body send feedback to the brain and influence the release of CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) and ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone).

ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, and the rise in cortisol secretion follows ACTH release after a 15 – 30 minute delay.

When cortisol is released into the bloodstream, it can act on many different parts of the body and can help the following:

  • Can help control blood pressure
  • Can reduce inflammation
  • Can increase the body’s metabolism of glucose
  • Can help the body respond to danger or stress

Cortisol is also needed for the fight or flight response, which is a natural and healthy response to perceived threats. The amount of cortisol produced is highly regulated by the body to make sure the balance is correct.

Why Is It So Important?

Cortisol speeds up the breakdown of proteins into amino acids (not including liver cells). These amino acids migrate out of the tissues and into the blood and liver cells where they are then changed to glucose in a process known as gluconeogenesis.

A prolonged high blood concentration of cortisol in the blood can result in a net loss of tissue proteins and higher levels of blood glucose, which might sound bad, but by raising plasma glucose levels, cortisol can provide the body with the energy it needs to combat stress from trauma, illness, fright, infection, bleeding, etc.

Clearly, this is bad from a muscle breakdown perspective, but the body is simply trying to preserve carbohydrate stores and deliver energy when it is needed most. Cortisol also mobilises the fatty acids from fat cells while helping to maintain blood pressure.

As it is part of the inflammatory response, cortisol is required for recovery from injuries, however, chronically high levels of cortisol in the blood can decrease white blood cells and antibody formation, which can unfortunately lower immunity. This is possibly the most important therapeutic property of glucocorticoids as they can reduce the inflammatory response, and this, in itself, can suppress immunity.

What Happens If You Produce Too Much Or Too Little?

Our body tends to produce the right amounts of cortisol, but people who suffer from a condition called Cushing’s syndrome, tend to produce too much cortisol, and people who suffer from a condition called Addison’s disease, produce too little cortisol.

The symptoms of too much cortisol include the following:

  • Weight gain, especially around the face and abdomen
  • Acne
  • Thin and fragile skin that is slow to heal
  • For women, facial hair and irregular menstrual periods

The symptoms of too little cortisol include the following:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constant tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Muscle weakness

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms your doctor or healthcare provider might recommend a blood test to measure your cortisol levels. Understanding your metabolism is also important when it comes to maintaining a healthy body.