You’re riding in a car and the brake lights of the vehicle in front of you light up like a lightning bolt: bright, unexpected and potentially dangerous. You take a quick breath, gasp and your body stiffens for impact. Your body’s reaction, fight-or-flight, is one that can save your life, but too much of that over a sustained amount of time can potentially end it. In fact, some studies suggest that the stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one.*
The body’s adrenal glands release cortisol, the stress hormone, into the bloodstream upon signs of stress, excitement or fear. These tiny triangular-shaped glands, located just above the kidneys, have the power to deposit a chemical into your bloodstream that can both consciously and subconsciously determine your immediate next course of action. Those power sources release adrenaline and cortisol for the body to be “mobilized and ready for action.” **
Let’s go back to the car scenario. The brake lights ahead of you flash on and you hit the brakes and avoid a crash. Internally, your hypothalamus and pituitary glands recognize if enough cortisol is in your bloodstream to be able to handle the stress. If they think the cortisol level is too low, they signal the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.
At this point, your heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies are on high alert. Body functions that would get in the way of handling a fight-or-flight situation are suppressed. Immune, digestive, reproductive and growth processes are temporarily on-hold. Say the driver in front of you continues driving and the brake lights are extinguished, ending the stressful situation. Your body’s recognition of the end of a potential emergency allows it to process the cortisol – its logical conclusion to finishing a task. Your breathing slows as you see that you are out of danger and the cortisol’s job is done. You resume normal driving and arrive at your destination.
In fact, reactions to good stress, also called eustress, can be positively stimulating and, at the end of the situation, allow cortisol to be eliminated. Distress, or free-floating anxiety, prevents a physical release of cortisol levels. The cortisol builds up in the blood. This may not seem like a big deal, I mean, who doesn’t want to be ready for whatever happens? Unfortunately, the power of cortisol makes it a big deal.
Consistently elevated cortisol levels go from life-saving to becoming disruptors in your life. Think of it like being on high-alert almost all the time, and the human body was not designed to stay that way. All of the body’s main systems are negatively impacted by too much cortisol too much of the time.
How do you recognize if your body is drowning in cortisol? What are some specific conditions associated with adrenal dysfunction? What are some solutions to too much fight-or-flight in your life? Later this month, we will address these questions and more so you can enjoy the life-saving benefits of cortisol, without the stress of over-exposure.
*: “Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1,” Christopher Bergland. Psychologytoday.com
**: “Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1,” Christopher Bergland. Psychologytoday.com