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Brenda Stevenson Counsellor and Psychotherapist
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STRESS AND CORTISOL

We’ve all heard about stress and most of us feel stressed at least occasionally but many feel stressed all the time.  Stress is a response to situations we think we don’t have the skills to handle; or we feel we are powerless to control or change; or that might be unfamiliar, difficult or threatening.  Stress negatively affects the mind and health over the long term; underneath stress is often fear.  As I’m not a medical practitioner I’ll briefly explain what is stress and cortisol in simplified terms.   

Stress and fear trigger the brain to release a cascade of hormones that enable us to handle threatening situations or to run away; it’s called the ‘fight or flight’ response.  In the short term stress can help us meet deadlines, achieve goals, and manage daily life.  However, prolonged or chronic stress means the body is in constant stress overload, through activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, and cortisol is continuously released.    

Cortisol (a glucocorticoid) is often called the ‘stress hormone’ and it’s released from the adrenal glands which sit above the kidneys.  The release of cortisol is necessary because it converts protein to energy for the body to use in stressful situations and to maintain survival; for instance, if you’re being attacked by a knife wielding lunatic. When the stressful situation is over glucocorticoids stop the stress response by feedback to the brain (Central Nervous System), and maintains homeostasis (internal stability). 

However, over the long term, prolonged release of cortisol has negative effects such as:

  •  impaired learning and memory retrieval
  •  blood sugar imbalances, e.g. hyperglycaemia
  •  decreased bone density
  •  decreased muscle tissue
  •  suppressed immune response
  •  suppressed thyroid function
  •  increased abdominal fat with higher levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL)  and lower levels of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL)

It’s clear there are many good reasons to manage stress in healthy and appropriate ways.  For those who have tried to lose weight but with no positive results, it might be worth considering if chronic stress and cortisol are a possible reason.  Cortisol not only deposits fat around the middle or belly but it seems to interfere with fat loss. 

There’s a plethora of books and websites about stress and managing stress and it’s worth an investment of your time to read and hopefully implement some of the tips.  Otherwise, your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing are at risk. 

 Sources:

Sapolsky, R.M. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. 3rd Edition. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, NY

Tortora, G.J. and Derrickson, B. 2006. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. 11th Edition. John Wiley and Sons, New York, USA

http://familydoctor.org/167.xml

www.cyh.com.au

www.nohsc.gov.au

www.medem.com

http://www.teachhealth.com

 



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