Cortisol is one of the body’s most prolific and powerful hormones. It has a hand in many functions, including how we deal with emotions and cravings. Despite its prominence, experts still have much to learn about how it impacts our ability to deal with pain and even immune responses. While you may be familiar with cortisol’s role as a "stress hormone" or its part in the fight-or-flight response, how the chemical deals with and causes some of those changes is even more interesting.
The hypothalamus is a small region in the base of the brain that regulates body temperature and hormone release. It checks the current temperature against the stasis temperature and maintains balance by prompting the body to sweat when it is too hot. Scientists continue to study the relationship between heat stress and temperature sensitivity. A randomized research trial showed that levels of circulating cortisol may predict a person's heat-tolerance, which is useful when it comes to dealing with severe climates.
Women’s cortisol levels have a significant impact during the transition to menopause. Research shows a strong positive correlation between cortisol levels and the severity of hot flashes. Menopausal women also experience elevated cortisol levels overnight, which could explain the other symptoms, such as weight gain and lowered sex drive.
The excretion of too little adrenocorticotropin hormone or ACTH by the pituitary gland in the brain reduces cortisol production. Low cortisol can cause an inflammatory response that triggers vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. Studies show that certain forms of this condition are more sensitive to neuro-endocrinal changes like this reduction in cortisol, which can affect melanin creation.
Hyperlipidemia or too much fat in the blood can create fatty deposits in arteries, which may cause blockages. In Cushing’s syndrome, a condition caused by excessive cortisol over a prolonged period, the hormone affects the fat breakdown process — lipolysis — which leads to free-floating fatty acids in the blood. This results in a cascade of health issues, including high cholesterol, excess triglycerides, and fatty liver disease.
During times of acute fear, many people report a salty taste in their mouths. Research indicates that stressful situations stimulate not only cortisol but aldosterone, another adrenal hormone that causes the body to reabsorb sodium and water, leading to higher blood volume and pressure. Along with arginine vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone, and renin, a kidney enzyme that plays a role in blood pressure regulation, this increase may lead to increased sodium retention.
When it comes to memory, cortisol is responsible for conflicting functionalities. The stress of a situation, such as a test, may hinder our ability to recall necessary facts. On the other hand, the memory of that particular inability to remember is vivid. While research shows that those with lower cortisol levels have better recall, doctors suggest that the change in cortisol levels during the recall process may hold the key to correlating stress sensitivity and memory recall.
When we feel threatened, cortisol provides energy to the musculoskeletal system to execute fight-flight-or-freeze response. Researchers believe that too much of the hormone can also induce insulin resistance and lead to diabetes by negatively affecting beta-cell function. Beta-cells are responsible for the secretion of the glucose-reducing hormones, insulin and amylin. A cross-sectional Japanese study showed a positive correlation between cortisol blood levels and the homeostatic model assessment of beta-cell function, HOMA-β, which helps professionals assess various factors causing diabetes.
The kidneys filter toxins with the help of glomeruli. Cortisol increases the kidney’s glomerular filtration rate, which causes an electrolyte imbalance, specifically in potassium. Because the hormone promotes salt and water retention, an increase in sodium essentially pushes out potassium, leading to hypokalemia or low potassium. This condition increases the risk of heart problems, including palpitations and cardiac arrest.
Some people have an extremely difficult time stopping excessive alcohol consumption, especially when dealing with certain environmental factors. While there is evidence that stress leads to increased drinking in some, there are still questions about how. Imaging studies of human brains corroborated animal studies that shed light on the neurobiology of alcohol use disorders. They showed that high cortisol levels reinforce the dopaminergic effect of alcohol, and in an effort to continue feeling good, drinkers to seek out more alcohol.
One of the reasons Cushing’s syndrome has a mortality rate is an affected individual's increased risk of thrombosis. A controlled study shows that those with Cushing’s have increased platelet counts and fibrinogen, a systemically available protein that forms clots in injured blood vessels. This, coupled with low levels of TFPI, an anticoagulant protein, leads to an increased risk of arterial clotting.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.