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The Cortisol Cost - How Stress Makes Us Sick


When it comes to our own wellbeing we often think that things are good enough and that we are actually pretty good. We just have a few adhoc allergies, the odd cough, a few restless nights and mostly we can get through the days. We focus our attention on delivering all the things we need to (work, family commitments, social life, and hobbies), we eat our meals, we sleep okay, and we take a few breaks a year for holidays and festivities.


Sounds normal and sensible right?


But what if we we’ve started to notice some weight gain, have a skin rash that isn't going away, discovered a persistent shortness of breath and a tight chest, forgot our partners mums birthday, dropped a bit of a clanger at work on an important project, had to cancel a family get together due to a recurring migraine, and had started slipping into a routine of a glass or two of wine at least 4 nights a week. Plus the take-aways Thursday to Saturday due to being too exhausted to cook on a weekend.


Maybe that’s also normal for you?


But actually it’s not normal. It’s a bit of a fiasco. And the culprit is cortisol.


Stress is part of life and some stress is necessary for the thrill and challenge of life - it gives us ‘get up and go’, but stress can also debilitate us when we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and drained. However, that’s still okay, if it’s mostly in balance, because our body is set to roll with the punches and some bad stress is acceptable! BUT if we’re constantly in this heightened state of stress then it becomes chronic stress which can inevitably lead to burnout.


In most cases when we get sick repetitively (mentally or physically) then stress is the culprit and accounts for so much mental and physical dis-ease and dysregulation which oftentimes we don’t realise until the damage is already done. Of course, the majority of stress-related ill health can be revoked and managed, however if our nervous system, hormones, immunity, and digestive systems break down then it can lead to irreversible damage or lifelong conditions that might not have happened should we have had the foresight to manage it. But as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing.


When stress levels are managed and diffused, in a good and methodical way, we do, and are able to, replenish our body with the right balance of nutrition, rest and sleep, as well as exposing it to the right amount of exertion. Our body functions normally (and at-ease) when our stress response (also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response) is activated only when absolutely necessary (and therefore not consistently) and then regains homeostasis by moving the body back into its ‘rest and digest’ status. When this happens our body utilises their functions, organs and cells to carry us safely through life without dis-ease.


So what if this optimal process doesn't happen? When we’re constantly stressed (too much too often, too little too often, too much too soon) our body is in an ongoing state of ‘fight or flight’ and our nervous system activates its sympathetic state to allow our body to run from the threat or fight it head on. In real life this might look like perfectionist tendencies, working long hours, ongoing deadlines, stressful relationships at home or at work that you “put up with” because you like the job or you love your kids. It could look like work hard/play harder, or the total opposite such as apathy in a job that is sucking your soul or an unfilling career that gives you zero challenge. It could also show up in finding ways to self soothe in order to numb the distress or to get some pleasure in life. However it looks, it’s simply too high a cost.


When our body is stressed or under threat (or perceived stress or threat such as unresolved trauma) our brain responds by sending messages via nerves and adrenaline and releasing hormones that trigger our adrenal glands. Our adrenal glands then release cortisol and adrenaline to mobilise our physical, mental and emotional resources, and when this happens our whole body is affected. Cortisol is an essential hormone in our body and when it’s doing its job right then we’re all good, but when this hormone is consistently fired up, or misfired at the wrong times (so over or under produced when needed) then our whole body and mood will be affected.


Cortisol release impacts the entire body and can cause illness as follows:

  • The endocrine system manages the production and logistics of hormones. Hormones determine and govern our bodily functions, metabolism, sleep, and mood so when we disrupt their normal function it can cause weight gain, thyroid issues, blood sugar imbalances, menstrual problems, low libido, infertility, mood swings, skin problems, bloating, migraines, to name but a few.

  • The digestive system is where our body sorts out essential nutrients and waste from what we consume, and is the home of the gut microbiome which also impacts our mood and cognitive ability via the brain (known as the gut-brain axis or GBA). Disputed digestive function causes so many issues including heartburn, gastritis, gas, bloating, changes in toilet habits, dysbiosis of the gut flora, leaky gut, IBS, IBD, colitis, food intolerances and sensitivities.

  • The immune system is responsible for our ability to fight infections or foreign bodies that enter our system, heal wounds, and regulate and eliminate normal and abnormal cells respectively. If this is not functioning correctly we get recurring colds and infection, skin rashes, autoimmune conditions, joint pain, chronic inflammation, viral infections and sadly can contribute to a plethora of cancers.

  • The nervous system is our body’s communication centre that tells us when/how to act, move, think, and feel via neurotransmitters which determine our mood, sleep, energy, and regulate our eating so if this is under performing we develop anxiety, depression, weight loss, addiction, eating disorders, cognitive decline, insomnia, fatigue, low levels of motivation, and palpitations. And this list is not exhaustive!


Cortisol also plays a huge part in regulating our circadian rhythm, which impacts our sleep and awake patterns and daily energy and is produced through the night to provide optimum levels upon rising to help us wake-up and start our day. As the day goes on the cortisol levels drop and are lowest at night to allow you to fall asleep. It’s actually during the the 7th and 8th hours of sleep that your body produces the cortisol it needs to get you through the next 16 hours before you head to bed again.


When cortisol is not delivered in the right measures, at the right time, and in the right place, then the entire body and its functions are easily affected as outlined above as well as even wider spread issues in our organs and cells. And of course, when we're not at our healthiest then we stop exercising, stop working, can't socialise, don't get as much fresh air and don't have the energy and appetite to buy/prepare/eat a good balanced diet. We might also take medication to try to correct the health issues but that can create additional side effects that can also stress the adrenals. That’s an awful lot of health risk in return for the stress! This is what cortisol costs our health and our wellbeing.


When it comes to our health, the WHO defines this as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” which is interesting when we consider that sometimes we only take notice of our health when something goes wrong. A true reflection of wellness is when all systems function at peak efficiency and communicate in a fully integrated way, and in order to get and stay here it's important to nurture and cultivate our balance, brilliance and resilience to ensure optimum performance.


If you’re struggling with chronic stress, have residual impact on your wellbeing from issues in your past, or are dealing with both then I would love to welcome you into an exploratory video call to see how I can help you. Feel free to book on using this link or inbox me quoting ‘OM1’. Alternatively, if you're a business leader or HR/People professional or leader and recognize that stress and burnout may be an issue for your teams or yourself then let's have a face to face meeting or a video chat using this link, alternatively inbox me quoting ‘People Time’.


To receive a copy of my free guide (Balancing Your Day for Optimum Performance), then please inbox me with your email address and I will share this with you or Subscribe to the Vibe.


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