Top 10 Cortisol Myths & Facts

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Top 10 Cortisol Myths & Facts
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Cortisol is a type of hormone produced in the body by the adrenal glands. It is responsible for a variety of processes that our body needs to operate smoothly — including metabolism, immunity, and (most importantly) stress response. Because cortisol deals with a lot of basic cellular processes, almost all of our cells have cortisol receptors that affect how they function. [1]

Cortisol and Chronic Stress

An article by the Mayo Clinic highlights the links between chronic stress and cortisol levels in the body. In order to meet the demands of a stressful event or situation, the body needs to respond accordingly – primarily with the “fight or flight response”. In the event that the body perceives a threat, an alarm is sounded and the body produces two main hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. The former boots blood pressure and energy while the latter, which is considered the primary stress hormone, causes an increase in blood glucose (colloquially termed “blood sugar”). Furthermore, cortisol suppresses nonessential functions like digestion and growth processes that are detrimental to the “fight or flight response”. [2]

When your body is in a constant state of stress, the elevated levels of cortisol can cause plenty of health problems such as: [2]

• Anxiety
• Depression
• Digestive problems
• Headaches
• Heart disease
• Sleep problems
• Weight gain
• Concentration and memory problems

Ten Cortisol Myths And Their Counterarguments

Myth #1: Cortisol isn’t important. Don’t worry about it.

On the contrary, cortisol plays an important role in the body, primarily regarding different basic processes our cells need to function — metabolism, immune response, and stress response. When the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol in a condition called Addison’s disease, a person can experience fatigue, dizziness, weight loss, muscle weakness, and mood changes. On the other hand, when the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol in a condition called Cushing’s syndrome, a person can experience weight gain, slow healing wounds, and the characteristic “moon face” or fatty deposits in the face and “buffalo hump” or fatty deposits in between the shoulders. [1][3]

Myth #2: You can’t fix your cortisol levels because you can’t avoid stress.

While stressful situations indeed cause cortisol levels in the body to rise, that doesn’t mean that we can’t control our cortisol during those times. Diet is one of the best ways we can control cortisol levels and prevent over or underproduction of this hormone. There are also plenty of techniques you can use to manage stress, like meditation and even exercise. [4]

Myth #3: High levels of cortisol cause weight gain.

This is one of the biggest myths out there today that give cortisol a bad name. Cortisol itself doesn’t cause you to gain weight — it’s the effect it has on your appetite and the susceptibility to develop fatty deposits in the abdominal area (a.k.a. central obesity). In short, when cortisol levels rise, insulin levels rise and blood sugar drops — which causes you to feel hungry or crave sugary and fatty foods. Cortisol itself doesn’t cause weight gain. [1]

Myth #4: Exercise lowers cortisol levels.

The opposite is true. Exercise is considered a stressful activity which can cause cortisol levels to rise. However, moderate exercise like pilates and running all keep cortisol at healthy levels. Excessive, rigorous physical activity like triathlon training can raise cortisol levels dangerously high which can cause systematic inflammation (an effect of cortisol on the body’s tissues). [5]

Myth #5: Carbs cause high cortisol levels.

The opposite is true. According to various studies, low carbohydrate diets actually cause an increase in cortisol. When the body detects low levels of sugar or glucose, it can stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which raises insulin levels in order to stimulate the urge to eat and raise the blood sugar. [6]

Myth #6: Skipping meals lowers cortisol levels.

If you read anything about cortisol lowering diets that involve cutting out carbs and sugar, you are in for a big surprise. Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar, which in turn stimulates cortisol and insulin production — similar to what happens when you don’t eat carbs. [6]

Myth #7: Cortisol makes you lose muscle.

When you search online about the relationship between cortisol and muscle mass, you will often find that most studies conclude that the two have a direct relationship— that means the higher your cortisol level, the more likely you are to lose muscle. However, why is it that exercise, an activity that raises cortisol, helps build muscles? This is because high levels of cortisol that is enough to cause muscle wasting only occur when a person has a disease characterized by increased cortisol production. In fact, cortisol actually helps with lipolysis, or fat burning, which is essential in losing weight and building muscles. [7]

Myth #8: You need to take pills to get your cortisol under control.

Don’t believe all the advertisements you read or hear. There is no such thing as a pill, drink, or similar product that will help you keep your cortisol levels normal. If you have been diagnosed with either Cushing’s or Addison’s disease, proper medical management will be discussed with you by your physician. Otherwise, no magic pill is needed for healthy individuals to keep their cortisol levels optimal.

Myth #9: Exercising for more than hour causes cortisol levels to skyrocket.

You won’t find any studies, published online or otherwise, that will state that after 60 minutes, your cortisol levels will reach dangerous levels. The most important factor that you have to weigh in when it comes to cortisol is the intensity of the exercise you are performing. Unless you are overworking your body and exercising (dangerously) for prolonged periods of time, you won’t be able to get your cortisol levels high enough to cause damage. Hill, et. Al. in 2008 actually concluded that low intensity exercise was able to reduce cortisol levels. [8]

Myth #10: Low cortisol levels cause adrenal fatigue.

First of all, there is no such thing as adrenal fatigue — it is a condition that doesn’t exist in the medical world. Your adrenal glands continue powering on unless they are affected by a disease like Addison’s disease (a.k.a. adrenal insufficiency) that causes adrenal gland dysfunction. Otherwise, your adrenal glands don’t get tired no matter what your cortisol levels are. [9]

References:

[1] Society for Endocrinology. Cortisol. http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol.aspx

[2] Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts you health at risk. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

[3] Mayo Clinic. Cushing syndrome. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cushing-syndrome/symptoms-causes/dxc-20197177

[4] Stahowicz, M. & Lebiedzinska, A. (2016). The effect of diet components on the level of cortisol. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00217-016-2772-3

[5] Filaire, E., et. al. (1996). Saliva cortisol, physical exercise and training: influences of swimming and handball on cortisol concentrations in women. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00377450?LI=true

[6] Roizman, T. (2015). Cortisol and carbohydrates. http://www.livestrong.com/article/456724-cortisol-carbohydrates/

[7] Djurhuus, C., et. al. (2002). Effects of cortisol on lipolysis and regional interstitial glycerol levels in humans. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12067858

[8] Hill, E., et. al. (2008). Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18787373

[9] Nippoldt, T. Is there such a thing as adrenal fatigue? http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/addisons-disease/expert-answers/adrenal-fatigue/faq-20057906

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