The most important hormone related to the stress response is cortisol..

But what is cortisol and why is it related to stress? In this article we will answer these questions, reviewing the brain route that is activated when we are stressed, and knowing the health problems that derive from chronic stress.

In addition, we will expose the functions of cortisol and propose some techniques and strategies to respond in a healthy way to stress, avoiding the excessive release of cortisol in the long term.

Cortisol… and why it’s linked to stress

Surely we’ve all had stress at some point in our lives.. Stress is a natural response of the organism when we expose ourselves to situations that threaten or surpass us. At that point, many hormones start to work, increasing their levels in the blood and inhibiting certain body functions. One of these hormones is cortisol.

Cortisol, also called hydrocortisone, is a steroid hormone or glucocorticoid. Occurs in a gland, the adrenal gland. Cortisol is released when we are in a stressful situation or period. The main function of this hormone is to prepare the body to “fight or flee” in a threatening situation.

In the short term, cortisol is functional, as it helps the body prepare to act; however, in the long term, as with chronic stress, cortisol has harmful effects. for health, which we’ll see later.

What is stress?

Cortisol is the main stress hormone. Stress is a psychophysiological state, a response of the organism that prepares to act in threatening situationsor in situations for which it does not have sufficient resources to respond adequately.

I mean, appears when we feel overwhelmed. When this happens, the hypothalamus, a brain structure at the base of the brain, triggers an alarm system. This system begins to operate, and sends and receives a series of nerve and hormonal signals.

All this causes the adrenal glands to activate, releasing a large amount of hormones; among the hormones they secrete are adrenaline (which increases blood pressure, heart rate…) and the cortisol.

Functions of cortisol

How does cortisol work? Cortisol functions include increasing glucose (sugar) levels in the bloodstream, improving glucose use in the brain, and increasing the availability of substances that repair damaged tissues.

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On the other hand, another function of cortisol is inhibit functions that may be harmful in a stressful situationwhere the individual must act (e.g. in a situation of struggle or flight). In other words, it reduces the functions that are not essential, or that can be dispensed with at that time.

How do you translate all this? For example, cortisol inhibits the digestive system, reproductive system and growth-related processes. In addition, all these functions of natural alarm of the organism before stressful situations, are related and connected with other regions of the brain, in charge of regulating three great elements: the motivation, the fear and the state of mind.

Stress chronification

But what happens when, beyond exercising its functions, the cortisol’s performance gets out of control? As we have seen, we know that when faced with a stressful or threatening situation, many hormones begin to act, activating the body’s natural alarm system.

Among them the cortisol, allowing to regulate and to produce this response of the organism to help it to prepare itself before the situation and to act. Just like that, when the threat disappearsor when the stressful situation “ends,” cortisol and other hormones stop working.

I mean, Hormones are back to normal levels.. This translates into a return to normal heart rate, normal blood pressure, resumption of normal activities, etc.

However, when that source of stress persists in time, that is, it becomes chronic and does not disappear, the alarm and activation system of the organism can continue to act, although in a slightly different way. It’s like the organism is in a state of permanent struggle. But what happens then? The body and its functions may be damaged.

In this way, if such an alarm response to long-term stress is triggered, cortisol production continues to boom (as well as other stress-related hormones). This means that the regular activities and functions of the body are disrupted, resulting in numerous health problems.

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Effects of cortisol

Health problems

The health problems that may appear when the organism remains over-activated In the long term, they are: digestive disorders, headaches, weakening of the immune system, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, premature aging, etc..

On the emotional and cognitive front, they can anxiety problems and depression, mental declineas well as alterations and deterioration in the processes of memory and concentration.

On the other hand, high levels of cortisol can also predispose you to certain types of diseases, such as diabetes; in addition, neurons in the brain can be damaged and blood pressure can rise, predisposing you to a cardio-brain-vascular problem.

Plus, beauty can also be impaired to high and chronic levels of cortisol; thus, it can appear desquamation of the skin, dryness of the same one, lack of luminosity and brightness, redness and dermatological problems (acne, psoriasis, herpes…).

How to react to stress in a healthy way?

It is evident that in life will appear many moments or periods where stress is its protagonist. However, it also depends on us that this situation ends up damaging us, because it is we who can regulate how to act and how to respond.

The first thing we need to be clear about is that it’s important detect what is stressing us and whythat is, to identify the antecedents or causes of such stress. We must also try to recognize our response to it; our thoughts, behaviors, alterations…

All this will help to prevent certain stressful psychophysiological states, where cortisol increases its levels.

Strategies for healthy stress management

Some strategies or techniques to manage stress include:

  • Practice breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Practicing a sport, such as yoga or meditation
  • Seek professional help when the situation requires it
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting enough sleep to get a good night’s sleep
  • Foster healthy social relationships

Bibliographic references

  • Leira, M.S. (2011). Manual of biological bases of human behavior. Chapter 12. Psychobiology of stress. University of the Republic: Montevideo.

  • Morrison, M. and Bennedett, P. (2008). Health psychology. Madrid: Pearson Educaci√≥n.

  • Taylor, S.E. (2003). Health psychology. Mexico City: McGrau-Hill.