The Color of Cortisol

Sometimes it’s challenging to live in a Technicolor world.  It would be so easy if things were just black and white.  This is especially true when it comes to understanding health and how to achieve it.  Why can’t stuff from group A be good and stuff from group B always be avoided? If it were that simple, one may actually have time comprehend one’s choices and choose well.

As a trainer, I see people struggle with this all the time.  Their comments betray oversimplified misunderstandings — gesture drawings, if you will, regarding health issues.  “I’m not eating any carbs at all” (huge mistake).  “I exercise 2 hours a day” (waste of time.) “I try to eat vegan, but …” (let me stop you right there!).  There’s so much to know, and so little time to see past the pencil outline or read past the headline.

Take cortisol for example.  The headlines scream about it’s destructiveness, health stores stock supplements to combat it and doctors write scarey best sellers about its ill effects. I know.  I’m informed.  In the simple world of good and bad, cortisol is BAD. Like B-B-B-B–B-A-D, BAD.

So I was a little confused when my client, Rebecca, came in talking about the value of having a balanced cortisol level. Cortisol can’t be good.  It’s the “stress hormone,” and it’s destructive.  Right?

Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenals, especially when stress levels are too high for so long that adrenalin doesn’t work so well anymore.  So sure, under these conditions cortisol provides quick energy, heightened memory functions, a burst of increased immunity, lower sensitivity to pain and helps maintain homeostasis in the body.  In other words, stress management.  Good.  Briefly.

Continued cortisol production is the opposite of good (bad).  It impairs cognitive function, disturbs hormonal balance, including thyroid, causes belly fat, and increases blood pressure.  In other words, it creates the problems that we associate with stress, and … OMG, did I just mention BELLY FAT?!  B-B-B-B-BAD.

Belly fat is the number one thing that my over 40’s complain about, so it’s commonplace to have to  explain the cortisol connection, and come up with strategies for dealing with it (relaxation techniques, exercise, supportive diet).  And so it’s in this context that I view the function of cortisol.  And I didn’t just read the headlines, I’ve read the first few paragraphs.

Turns out that I was so busy vilifying cortisol as that thing that “messes with your six pack” that, I was color blind to the fact that, besides helping to manage stress, it has a vital role in the daily undertakings of our very complex hormonal system.

For example, I didn’t realize how important cortisol is when dealing with chronic illness.  Cortisol is necessary for several major body processes to function normally and is integral to blood sugar regulation, proper immune function, blood pressure, and the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

While it’s normal value is very low, when it’s off, it can cause problems such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • Poor response and “crashing” during stress
  • Increased allergies and environmental sensitivity
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar with irritability when hungry)
  • Low blood pressure and dizziness upon first standing

So thanks, Rebecca, for kindly putting together the information (below) about this “BAD” (or badass?) hormone. It’s not only enlightening and informative, but serves as a 64 color Crayoloa box with which to color in the cartoon outline of cortisol.

I am simply pasting the e-mail of information that I received from Rebecca, not just because I’m lazy, but because it is quite thorough, and also so that I may demonstratively brag about the quality of my clients!

From Rebecca:

Here are some links to cortisol info (below).  Generally, it’s about the same basic concept as thyroid hormones. Too much thyroid hormone and you have serious problems; too little of it, and you have a different and contrasting set of serious problems.  Some of the highlights are:


  • In the fasting state, cortisol stimulates gluconeogenesis (formation of glucose, in the liver, from certain amino acids, glycerol, lactate, and/or propionate), and activates anti-stress and anti-inflammatory pathways.
  • Cortisol prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation.
  • Normal values for a blood sample taken at 8 in the morning are 6 – 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
  • Cortisol has many functions. It helps the body use sugar (glucose) and fat for energy (metabolism), and it helps the body manage stress.
  • Cortisol is a hormone that is vital for health. It has many functions which include helping to regulate blood pressure, helping to regulate the immune system, helping to balance the effect of insulin in regulating the blood sugar level, and helping the body to respond to stress.
  • The adrenal glands increase their production of cortisol in response to stress. Cortisol raises blood sugar and blood pressure levels and moderates immune function, in addition to playing numerous other roles. If the cortisol level is low, the person has fatigue, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, poor immune function, an increased tendency to allergies and environmental sensitivity, and an inability to deal with stress.
  • Inflammation is just one part of our complex and amazing immune system and cortisol plays a huge role in how well it functions. Studies on the effect of glucocorticoids like cortisol on gene expression shows that they up-regulate and down-regulate up to 2,000 genes that are involved in regulation of the immune response…There is a bidirectional communication between the immune system and the HPA axis, in which cytokines stimulate the HPA axis and the resulting release of glucocorticoids provides negative feedback control of the immune response, keeping inflammation in check. It is well established that glucocorticoids exert an important modulatory role on the immune system, both suppressing and enhancing a variety of immune functions.



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