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Cortisol: the hormone that causes us stress

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Much is said in recent times of stress, a phenomenon known as "the epidemic of the XXI century". The rhythm of life that we lead, the socioeconomic situation and the working conditions to which we are subjected contribute significantly to the appearance of this condition.

Cortisol is one of the hormones associated with stress together with adrenalin, and its main function to prepare the body for the moments of greatest activation in which it is necessary to be alert. Stress is an adaptive response that prepares our bodies to carry out a fight or flight response to a dangerous or threatening stimulus. However, when this phenomenon occurs daily and becomes chronic, pathological stress appears that causes serious problems for physical and mental health.

  • Related article: "Chronic stress: causes, symptoms and treatment"

What is cortisol

Cortisol, also known as hydrocortisone, it is a glucocorticoid. It is produced above the kidneys, in an area known as the adrenal cortex, in response to stress (physical or emotional), and its synthesis and release is controlled by adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and its rhythm circadian.

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In the morning, the amount of cortisol rises until reaching its peak around 8:00 am (taking into account a normalized sleep schedule), due to the need to generate energy sources after a long night. In the afternoon it also increases to keep us active, but then it decreases progressively.

Stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline

Cortisol and adrenaline they are two related hormones with stress but they have different functions. Understanding the function of each of these chemicals can help us understand what happens in our bodies when we are faced with a stressful stimulus. The reaction to stress is an instinctive behavior that has allowed the survival and development of human beings, since our body is programmed to act in emergency situations or danger.

However, this that has worked so well for us throughout history, creates serious problems today because of the way we humans live. Likewise, this phenomenon not only occurs in the face of physical stimulus, but our thoughts can also cause stress (for example, when a person suffers a post-traumatic stress situation and constantly relives a stressful situation from the past), which can carry a situation of physical and mental exhaustion excessive.

How adrenaline works

Faced with a stressful stimulus, adrenaline gives us a quick boost, so that our energy increases and thus we can escape from danger. Breathing, pulse, and heart rate speed up so the muscles respond more quickly. The pupils dilate, the blood circulates faster and it moves away from the digestive system to avoid vomiting. In general, the whole body prepares itself to react quickly to certain stimuli, so that it does not act at too slow a pace.

These physiological functions of adrenaline are complemented by other psychological functions such as keeping us alert and being more sensitive to any stimulus. Adrenaline, in addition to being a hormone, is also a neurotransmitter that acts in the brain. In this way, an intense dialogue is established between the nervous system and the rest of the organism, which is very useful when you have to trigger processes that affect many areas of the body in a short time weather.

What function does it have in alarm situations?

In stressful situations, the cortisol level also increases. Its main functions are increase the amount of sugar in the blood, and also suppress the immune system to save energy and aid the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. This can be very appropriate for a specific moment, but not when the stressful situation is part of our day to day.

The release of sugar in the blood has the function of maintaining an appropriate energy level to respond effectively to the stress situation and allows us to be alert. Actually, it is the adrenaline in the brain that signals the glucose to be released into the brain. bloodstream (known as blood sugar), but cortisol contributes to its synthesis. It also contributes to the use of fats and proteins as energy substrates.

As we have seen, another response of cortisol to a stressful situation is that suppresses the immune system, because all energy is necessary to control stress. In addition, this hormone also causes an increase in histamine, which explains why people tend to get sicker or suffer from herpes or allergies when they suffer from this phenomenon.

Relationship with stress

The excess cortisol that derives from staying in stressful situations for a long time causes certain imbalances due to the energy drain we are experiencing. Some of the symptoms that we can suffer are the following:

  • Feeling of fatigue, tiredness and exhaustion.
  • Memory, concentration and learning problems.
  • Predominance of irritability, anger and aggressiveness.
  • Physical pain (for example, head or stomach)
  • Weakening of the immune system and, therefore, diseases, allergies, etc.

When stress manifests itself for a long time, then it is possible to experience complex pictures of anxiety, feelings of failure, insomnia or depression.

Other consequences of excess of this hormone

Although cortisol has a bad reputation because it is associated with something as negative as chronic stress or burnout, in the human body performs a large number of vital functions. Among other things, it allows our rhythms to adapt to the rhythm that certain situations demand of us, such as the moments in which our physical integrity may be in danger or when a test is approaching that we must get over. Although the sensation is not always pleasant, that does not mean that it is not necessary or practical.

However, in the long term it causes a number of unwanted effects. For example, the production of cortisol, either by deficit or excess, can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones and converting these from T4 to T3.

Cortisol disrupts the reproductive system, causing infertility or even miscarriage when cortisol levels are too high or chronically high. In addition, the chronic increase in cortisol can cause intense hunger and food cravings due to the disorder. metabolism that occurs, and also influences mental blocks and memory problems related to sensation of "To stay blank".


Cortisol is a stress-related hormone that in itself it is not negative. However, when stress becomes chronic and pathological it can create a series of problems or negative consequences for the person. These consequences include:

  • Decreased defenses
  • Stomach problems, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Appetite problems
  • Humor changes
  • Difficulties concentrating and memory problems
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Hypertension
  • Infertility and interruption of menstruation

If you are going through a stressful situation and you want to know what you should do, in this article: "10 essential tips to reduce stressYou can find some keys to combat it.

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