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  • Writer's pictureKevin Allagapen

Stress and cortisol: roles, functions and issues.

Mental health
Stress and cortisol in mental health

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands (gland above the kidneys) during a state of stress or anxiety. It plays a central role in the regulation of various physiological processes within the human body. Although cortisol is essential for maintaining overall health, chronic or excessive secretion can have detrimental effects. Its mechanism is as follows:

When we are in a situation of stress, from an illusory fear or a real danger, the body will secrete a hormone called cortisol which is created by the adrenal glands and the liver. This hormone has been very important in humanity and still is since it allows the muscles to be supplied very quickly with a source of energy. In other words, cortisol will use the liver's glucose reserves to fuel the muscles and allow the person to escape potential danger.

We can imagine that the first humans faced with danger had to protect themselves or flee to be able to get out of this situation, the human body being well made, it needs energy very quickly for the muscles to activate, hence immediate glucose secretion from the liver.

Pathway: stress - cortisol - liver - glucose - muscles

The impact of chronic stress.

Today we are almost protected from this type of immediate danger but that does not prevent the deactivation of this mechanism, on the contrary, we must face other types of fears and dangers that are omnipresent and no longer punctual.

We use cortisol continuously and regularly, sometimes even without realising it: stress at work is a perfect example to illustrate its use. However, this hormone is not made to stay in the body, and we are not supposed to have glycogen reserves in the blood if we do not use our muscles, since in the example of stress at work we are very often physically inactive, sedentary, and faced with stress that can arise from different causes: time limitation of a project, financial emergencies, social discomfort.

In the situation where the muscles do not need energy, the glucose which has been requested by cortisol will be in excess and will potentially be restored in the adipose cells, as fat.

What is the impact of high blood sugar on the brain?

When our blood sugar is regularly high, in other words the conditions of diabetes, this creates the risk of damaging our red blood cells carrying oxygen to the different cells of the body. The brain deprived of sufficient red blood cells, and therefore oxygen, will suffer cell loss which will cause brain atrophy. This process can cause damage to memory and develop symptoms related to dementia (Alzheimer's disease). Today some researchers associate Alzheimer's disease under the name: type 3 diabetes.

The mechanism of stress on the cardiac system.

We can also say that stress has an influence on cardiovascular diseases since under a state of stress, the body increases its blood pressure to be able to supply the muscles with oxygen and glucose to escape or face the danger.

However, we know that continuous high blood pressure damages blood vessels: arteries and veins.

In our repair mechanism, the body will request the healing of these blood vessels using cholesterol. The accumulation of cholesterol will serve as a “bandage” to the arteries damaged by blood pressure, thus producing in the long term an accumulation of lipids reducing arterial space and blood flow. This mechanism is one of the long-term risks of clot formation and blockage of the arteries. And all of this comes from chronic stress.

Some tips for reducing your cortisol levels:

  • Take care of your sleep hygiene: quantity and quality of sleep.

  • Reduce stimulants by avoiding excess caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

  • Exercise regularly.

  • Practice meditation, breathing exercises or yoga.

  • Eat foods rich in nutrients (fruits, vegetables and quality protein sources).

Nutrition is the pillar for our body to carry us as far as possible, however, psychology, mental health management and physical activity are the indivisible elements to enable this long journey that is life.

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