Cortisol, The Stress Hormone

Cortisol, the stress hormone

Cortisol is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in our brain. The scientific community considers it the stress hormone. Our body makes it in situations of stress. It helps us to deal with these situations. The hypothalamus controls the release of this hormone. It is a response to stressful situations and to the low levels of glucocorticoids in the blood.

Stress is an emotion that causes physical tension. It can be the result of any situation or thought that makes us feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. In small doses, stress can actually be positive. For example, it helps us to avoid danger. But when stress changes from a momentary emotion to a recurring emotion, it can damage our health.

Through our way of thinking, believing and feeling we can determine our level of cortisol, the stress hormone. In addition, scientific evidence shows that by altering our thoughts in certain ways, we alter the biochemical activity of our brain cells.

A lack of humor, being constantly annoyed and often angry can be signs of elevated cortisol levels. Other people are incessantly tired for no apparent reason, lose their appetite, or overeat.

The stress hormone

Cortisol, the stress hormone and the hormone of insomnia

When we interpret situations as stressful, the level of the stress hormone rises. This can weaken the quality and duration of sleep. Although we have portrayed cortisol in a negative way, it must still be present to some degree during the day. Because it keeps us awake and active. In the evening the level of the stress hormone drops.

Cortisol levels can also vary during the day. For example, some people are more active in the morning. Others cannot start their day until after they have eaten. But it is normal for it to gradually decrease as the day goes on. It reaches its lowest level when it is time to go to sleep. But if our stress response remains active, the cortisol level will not decrease at night. We will then have a hard time falling asleep.

Cortisol plays an important role in our health and well-being. With every problem we identify as a threat, it rises. When our cortisol level is good, we feel mentally strong, clear and motivated. But when it’s low, we often feel confused, listless, and tired.

The stress hormone

Keeping stress under control is important and often not easy. In a healthy body, the stress response occurs and then the relaxation response takes over. But on the one hand, if our response to stress is activated too often, it’s harder to turn it off. As a result, there is a greater chance of a disturbance of the balance. When stress, on the other hand, continues and the desired relaxation response does not occur, we become ill.

Stress makes us sick

Stress is your body’s way of trying to solve a problem. But when a situation reoccurs, it can cause conditions such as diabetes, depression, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and other autoimmune disorders. The body’s response to stress has a protective and adaptive character. But the response to chronic stress creates a biochemical imbalance that actually weakens our immune system.

Research has shown that recurrent and very intense stress is one contributing factor to the development of somatization. It is a result of poor adaptation to change. Stress can cause, provoke or exacerbate many psychosomatic disorders.

When acute stress continues, ulcers can form in various parts of our digestive system. We can get cardiovascular problems. In people with high risk factors, it can actually lead to a heart attack. In addition, these conditions often move in silence. Often they cause somatization in different ways and in different areas of the body. This depends on the specific characteristics of the person concerned.

Social support reduces cortisol levels

Social support and oxytocin work together in our bodies. They suppress the subjective responses that psychosocial stress causes. So support from family and friends is one of the most powerful ways to protect yourself from stress-related illnesses, just like the conditions we listed above.

A study in biological psychology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, led by Markus Heinrichs, has shown for the first time that the hormone oxytocin plays a key role in both stress control and stress-reducing effects in humans. Oxytocin also plays a significant role in our social behavior (stress modulator).

Social network, healthy diet, relaxed…

It is difficult to control the level of the stress hormone. However, there are certain factors that are easier and more direct to control. We’re talking about having a good social support network (people who make you feel like you can count on them and who can really count on you). You can also reduce your intake of certain substances, such as alcohol or tobacco. Because they indirectly increase the cortisol level.

A healthy balanced diet also helps to regulate the level of this hormone. That’s because lower calorie intake can lower cortisol levels. A study by Ohio State University found that adding relaxation and meditation exercises to our daily routine reduces the risk of chronic stress.

According to this study, there is a difference between the people who meditate and those who do not. If a thought occurs in a “meditative mind,” the thought is a witness. In the other case, the thought is the master.


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Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., y Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin work together to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry  ,  54  (12), 1389-1398.

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