Cortisol is a good news, bad news sort of hormone. The good news is, it’s part of our ancestral biology, and we may have it and other fight-or-flight reactions to thank for our survival as a species. The bad new is, chronically elevated levels of cortisol have been shown to be associated with higher mortality, by wreaking havoc on our cardiovascular and immune systems, and our metabolism.
In situations of danger or acute stress, the adrenal gland releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol for a quick escape: glucose and free fatty acids are mobilized, and cardiac output and blood pressure rise. Cortisol also alters the function of the immune and digestive systems, to help divert resources to the parts of your body required to escape the threat.
In caveman times, things would return to normal once the menace disappeared. Trouble is, these primitive reactions persist when our modern-day stresses like job deadlines, heavy traffic, and bickering kids don’t ease up. Even dieting has been shown to increase levels of this hormone. When cortisol remains elevated over a long period of time, it can create or contribute to several problems:
- Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries
- Metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms related to insulin resistance
- Decreased bone density
- More belly or visceral fat
- Immune function decline
A 2010 Italian study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that among the 861 subjects (aged 65 years or older), people with the highest amount of cortisol in their urine had five times the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. This was true even when subjects had no previous heart disease, suggesting cortisol may cause, rather than simply be a symptom, of this condition.
An earlier (2009) Dutch study, published in Clinical Endocrinology, also found associations between high blood cortisol levels and mortality, especially from hypertension and diabetes.
What to do? Try to lower the amount of stress, anger, and anxiety in your life. Though this is not always possible, choosing to make changes in your job, or relationships, might benefit your lifespan. Learning to relax in stressful situations, meditating, and trying to handle difficult people with less anxiety or anger is really worth it in the long run, for greater quality, and quantity of life. Your body will thank you.
A. Janet Tomiyama, Traci Mann, Danielle Vinas, Jeffrey M. Hunger, Jill DeJager, and Shelley E. Taylor. “Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol.” Psychosom Med. 2010 May; 72(4): 357–364.
Nicole Vogelzangs, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, Yuri Milaneschi, Stefania Bandinelli, Luigi Ferrucci, and Brenda W. J. H. Penninx. “Urinary Cortisol and Six-Year Risk of All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab 95: 4959–4964, 2010. http://www.cenegenicsfoundation.org/library/library_files/Urinary_cortisol_and_six_year_risk_of_all_cause_and_cardiovascular_mortality..pdf
Schoorlemmer RM, Peeters GM, van Schoor NM, Lips P. “Relationships between cortisol level, mortality and chronic diseases in older persons.” Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2009 Dec;71(6):779-86.