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 pathway that is activated when we become stressed, and learning about the health problems that result 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.
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Cortisol … and why it is linked to stress
Surely all of us at some point in our lives have suffered from stress.. Stress is a natural response of the body when we are exposed to threatening or overwhelming situations. At that moment, many hormones start working, increasing their levels in the blood and inhibiting certain functions of the organism. One of these hormones is cortisol.
Cortisol, also called hydrocortisone, is a steroid or glucocorticoid hormone. It is produced 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 flight” from a threatening situation.
In the short term, cortisol is functional, as it helps the body prepare to act; however, In the long term, such as in the face of chronic stress, cortisol has detrimental health effects, which we will see below. health effects, which we will see below.
What is stress?
Cortisol is the main stress hormone. Stress is a psychophysiological state, a response of the organism that prepares to act in the face of threatening situations. prepares itself to act in the face of threatening situationsIt is a psycho-physiological state, a response of the organism that prepares itself to act in the face of threatening situations, or situations for which it does not have sufficient resources to respond adequately.
That is to say, it appears when we feel overwhelmed. When this happens, the hypothalamus, a brain structure located at the base of the brain, activates an alarm system. This system begins to operate, and sends and receives a series of nervous and hormonal signals.
All of this causes the adrenal glands to become active, releasing a large number of hormones; among the hormones they secrete are adrenaline (which increases blood pressure, heart rate…) and cortisol.
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Functions of cortisol
How does cortisol work? Among the functions of cortisol are: to increase the levels of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, improve the use of glucose in the brain and increase the availability of those substances that allow the repair of damaged tissues.
On the other hand, another function of cortisol is to inhibit functions that may be detrimental in a stressful situation, where the individual must act (e.g., for example, in a stressful situationIt also inhibits functions that may be detrimental in a stressful situation, where the individual must act (for example in a fight or flight situation). In other words, it reduces functions that are not essential, or that can be dispensed with at such times.
How does all this translate? For example, cortisol inhibits the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth-related processes.. In addition, all these natural alarm functions of the organism in stressful situations are related and connected with other brain regions, responsible for regulating three major elements: motivation, fear and mood.
Chronification of stress
But what happens when, beyond exercising its functions, cortisol’s action gets out of control? As we have seen, we know that when faced with a stressful or threatening situation, many hormones start to act, activating the body’s natural alarm system.
Among them cortisol, allowing to regulate and produce this response of the organism to help it prepare for the situation and act. Thus, when the threat disappearsor when the stressful situation “ends”, cortisol and the rest of the hormones stop acting.
In other words, the hormones return to levels within the normal range.. This translates into a return to a normal heart rate, normal blood pressure, resumption of normal activities, etc.
However, However, when this source of stress persists over time, i.e. it becomes chronic and does not disappear, the alarm and activation system of the organism may continue to be activated. and does not disappear, the alarm and activation system of the organism can continue to act, although in a slightly different way. It is as if the organism were in a state of permanent struggle. But what happens then? The organism and its functions can be damaged.
Thus, if this alarm response to long-term stress is triggered, cortisol production remains high, the production of cortisol continues to rise. (as well as other stress-related hormones). This leads to disruption of the body’s regular activities and functions, resulting in numerous health problems.
The health problems that can appear when the organism remains over-activated in the long term, are: digestive disturbances, headaches, weakening of the immune system In the long term, they are: digestive disorders, headaches, weakening of the immune system, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, premature aging, etc.
As for the emotional and cognitive field, anxiety and depression problems, decline problems of anxiety and depression, mental decline, as well as alterations and deterioration of the immune system.and deterioration in the processes of memory and concentration.
On the other hand, high cortisol levels can also predispose to certain types of diseases, such as diabetes; in addition, brain neurons can be damaged and blood pressure can increase, predisposing to cardio-cerebrovascular problems.
In addition, beauty can also be impaired The skin may become flaky, dry, dull, lacking in radiance and glow, redness and dermatological problems (acne, psoriasis, herpes…).
How to react in a healthy way to stress?
It is obvious that in life there will be many moments or periods where stress is the protagonist. However, it is also up to us whether this situation will end up damaging us, since we are the ones who can regulate how to act and how to respond to stress..
The first thing that we must be clear about is that it is important to to detect what stresses us and whythat is to say, to identify the antecedents or causes of such stress. We must also try to recognize what is our response to it; our thoughts, behaviors, alterations….
All this will help to prevent certain stressful psychophysiological states, where cortisol levels increase.
Strategies for healthy stress management
Some strategies or techniques for managing stress include:
- Practicing breathing and relaxation techniques
- Practicing a sport, as well as yoga or meditation.
- Seeking professional help when the situation requires it
- Following a healthy diet
- Getting enough sleep to get a restful night’s sleep.
- Encourage healthy social relationships