Stress and the Immune System: The Role of Cortisol

Stress is a normal part of daily living. As unpleasant as it may be, stress is nature’s way of providing a boost of energy that spurs us to action, keeping us safe when we’re in danger or feeling threatened. While stress can be beneficial in certain situations, prolonged, chronic stress and frequent worry about matters large or small is another story,

Researchers have determined that our state of mind affects our health and compromises our immune system by triggering release of high levels of cortisol, a hormone that regulates the many ways our bodies react to physical and emotional stress. For example, cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is involved in blood sugar levels, circadian rhythms, metabolism, fertility, contraction of the heart and blood vessels and blood pressure, as well as anti-inflammatory action and immune system responses.

Short exposure to cortisol isn’t reason for concern, and nature intended that high levels of cortisol remain in the system just long enough to cope with the stressful event. However, thanks to today’s fast-paced, high-pressure lifestyles, the stress response is activated so frequently that it doesn’t always have an opportunity to drop back to normal levels.

Ongoing exposure to high levels of cortisol can result in a range of physical and mental problems such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, stomach problems, decreased bone density, increased abdominal fat, slow wound healing, decreased muscle mass, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Adrenal Fatigue

Excessive stress may also result in depletion of cortisol, a condition known as adrenal fatigue. Chronically low levels of cortisol can result in exhaustion, brain fog, blood sugar imbalances, inflammation, low thyroid levels, low blood pressure and decreased immunity and increased susceptibility to illness.

Cortisol Tests

If you suspect your cortisol levels may be too high or too low, your health care provider can conduct a simple test known as a serum cortisol test or cortisol level test. The test, which uses a blood sample, measures the amount of cortisol present in the blood.

Your physician can use the test to assess the functioning of the adrenal glands, and to determine if cortisone levels are a result of stress, or if there are other matters involved. In some cases, imbalances in cortisol may be the result of underlying issues, including diseases such as Cushing’s Disease or Addison’s Disease, both of which affect the amount of cortisol your body produces.

Harvard Medical School offers several suggestions for coping with stress:

Social support – Spending time with friends and family has been proven to moderate stress and release of cortisol. Studies indicate, for example, that people who work in high-stress jobs enjoy better mental health if they have healthy social support.

Exercise – Harvard says that while intense exercise may temporarily increase cortisone levels, moderate exercise may moderate levels. Exercises such as yoga and tai chi serve a double purpose, providing elements of both medication and exercise.

Meditation – Harvard notes that most studies have focused on heart disease and high blood pressure, there’s little doubt that meditation helps regulate stress.

Drug and Alcohol Treatment or Rehab

People often use destructive methods of coping with high levels of stress and anxiety, including use of drugs and alcohol or behaviors such as gambling or overeating. If you’re self-medicating stress in unhealthy ways, consider counseling or drug or alcohol treatment, which can help you examine your thinking and learn healthier methods of managing stress.

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