Cortisol is a hormone synthesized from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands, located in the upper part of each kidney. It is usually released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress. The systemic effects of cortisol play many roles in the body to carry out its stressful processes and maintain homeostasis.
Cortisol in response to stress
Cortisol (along with epinephrine) is known for its involvement in the “fight or flight” response and the temporary increase in energy production, to the detriment of other processes that are not necessary for immediate survival.
The following steps are a typical example of how cortisol works in response to stress and as a survival mechanism:
An individual is facing a stress factor.
A complex hormonal response is generated, and the adrenal glands secrete cortisol.
Cortisol prepares the body for a fight or flight response, flooding it with glucose, an immediate source of energy for large muscles.
Cortisol inhibits the production of insulin in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favoring its immediate use. Cortisol narrows the arteries, while epinephrine increases the heart rate, so the strength of the blood when pumping is stronger and faster.
What happens if I have an excess of cortisol?
Excess cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to so-called Cushing’s syndrome. This can be caused by various factors, such as a tumor that generates adrenocorticotropic hormone (and therefore increases the secretion of cortisol), or take certain types of medications.
Rapid weight gain, mainly on the face, chest and abdomen, in contrast to thin arms and legs
A red, round face
Changes in the skin (purple bruises and stretch marks)
Mood changes: anxiety, depression or irritability
Increased thirst and frequency of urination
High levels of cortisol for a long time may also cause lack of sexual desire and, in women, periods may be irregular, less frequent or completely stopped (amenorrhea).
Sleep deprivation, caffeine, alcohol and its effects on cortisol
Students often sacrifice hours of sleep and increase caffeine and alcohol consumption, all of which have an impact on cortisol levels and, therefore, the physiological markers of the stress response.
Acute loss of sleep confuses the HPA axis and alters the negative feedback regulation of glucocorticoids. In one study they found that plasma cortisol levels are higher, up to 45%, after sleep deprivation, an increase that has implications including immunological response, cognitive decline and metabolic disturbances.
The relationship between caffeine, stress and cortisol secretion is also important. When we ingest a large amount of caffeine in a day, our cortisol levels increase. There is a clear positive relationship between caffeine consumption and cortisol release, and this relationship is aggravated when other potential stressors are introduced. In this way, to the intake of caffeine, we add the lack of sleep and the intake of energy drinks, we can be causing a great hormonal imbalance in our body.
Alcohol manages to activate the HPA axis because it depresses the nerve cells responsible for the inhibition of HPA, thus increasing the activity of the axis. As a result, the adrenal cortex secretes high levels of cortisol. It is not surprising then, that students complain later about their considerable level of anxiety and pressure sensation, since they are our common responses to stress.
In short, lack of sleep, caffeine consumption and alcohol consumption act together to increase the amount of cortisol in our body, increasing the stress we try to combat.
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