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Cortisol - Keeping a Dangerous Hormone in Check

Cortisol is an essential hormone that plays many vital roles, including helping the human body adapt to stress. Yet this naturally occurring hormone is one of the few whose levels in the body increase with age, with potentially damaging consequences that have been linked to depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and other maladies.

The good news is new research on nutrients such as phosphatidylserine, DHEA, and ginkgo biloba offers valuable insights on how to control cortisol levels to promote optimal health.

Declining hormone levels are a hallmark of the aging process. The body’s production of DHEA, pregnenolone, and testosterone drops significantly as we age, and these changes in hormone levels can have dramatic effects on our health.

But not all hormones follow this pattern. One major exception is cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. While cortisol plays vital roles in the body, excessive secretions of this hormone can have serious health implications, including loss of mental function, depression, and a reduction in lean tissue. Extreme overproduction of cortisol, as occurs in Cushing’s syndrome, results in increased body fat, decreased bone density, and severe muscle weakness. Thus it is critical to maintain cortisol levels within a healthy range. Fortunately, scientists have discovered that phosphatidylserine, DHEA, and ginkgo biloba can reduce cortisol levels, helping to keep this catabolic hormone from damaging your body.

Cortisol’s Many Roles

Cortisol is one of several hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This auto-regulating system maintains a tight integration of the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, constantly reacting to a variety of internal and external stimuli. This allows the body to adapt to a broad range of changing circumstances, promoting survival and longevity. When this axis is partially inactivated or functions improperly, the body may be exposed to excessive amounts of neural, endocrine, and immune stress, resulting in pathological consequences such as chronic disease, hormone imbalance and immune dysfunction.

When the body experiences stress (aging, psychological, physical), the hypothalamus sends signals (corticotropin-releasing hormone) to the pituitary gland. This stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete larger amounts of a hormone known as adrenocorticotropin, or ACTH. This hormone regulates the activities of the outer portion of the adrenal gland known as the adrenal cortex, where cortisol is produced.

An enhanced secretion of ACTH triggers increased production of cortisol and other related glucocorticoids in the adrenal cortex. Cortisol, also called hydrocortisone, has several important metabolic effects in the body:

  • Increases the mobilization of free fatty acids, making them more available as an energy source.

  • Decreases glucose use, sparing it for essential brain functions.

  • Stimulates protein catabolism (breakdown) so that amino acids can be released for use in repair, enzyme synthesis, and energy production.

  • Stimulates gluconeogenesis, the process by which protein or fat is converted into glucose.

  • Decreases the effectiveness of insulin (acts as an antagonist by inhibiting glucose uptake and oxidation).

Cortisol also has non-metabolic activities which include:

  • Restraining the immune system’s production of inflammatory cytokines.

  • Increasing catecholamine release to improve blood flow and distribution.

  • Enhancing mental acuity.

Cortisol has short-term anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it was used to treat arthritis when first made available as a drug in the 1950s. Unfortunately, cortisol also depresses immune reactions, and as a result produces serious negative effects when administered for prolonged periods. Once considered wonder drugs, cortisol-based drugs are now used only as a last resort, and even then only for short periods.

Glucocorticoids are involved in almost every cellular, molecular, and physiologic network of the human and play a pivotal role in critical biologic processes, such as growth, reproduction, intermediary metabolism, immune and inflammatory reactions, and central nervous system and cardiovascular functions.

This would explain why high levels of cortisol in the body have been shown to produce hypertension, poor wound healing, bone loss, muscle wasting, thin skin, increased abdominal fat, insulin resistance, sleep fragmentation, and depression, all of which are common in older individuals.

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels / glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR):

  • Wired or fatigued

  • High blood pressure

  • Hyperglycemia

  • Worsening memory and concentration

  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Erectile dysfunction

  • Weight gain and obesity

  • Weakened immune system

Symptoms of Adrenal Maladaptation Syndrome (Low Cortisol Levels):

  • Fatigue

  • Worsening memory and concentration

  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)

  • Sugar and salt cravings

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Depressed mood

  • Weight gain

  • Bone and muscle loss

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

Solutions for Adrenal Maladaptation Syndrome:

Finding your personal solution to Adrenal Maladaption Syndrome requires an in depth dive into your lifestyle, diet, stressors and advanced lab testing. Interventions to manage high cortisol levels may vary from interventions for low cortisol levels. However, there are simple solutions that can help you begin to take control of your adrenal function whether you have high or low cortisol levels. An integrative approach to controlling the body's stress response is the most effective, including adaptogenic herbs, intentional lifestyle interventions and diet.

  • Cortisol Pro is formulated with a comprehensive panel of patented, biologically active ingredients that are scientifically backed for supporting healthy cortisol rhythms and adrenal function. (Phosphatidylserine, L-Theanine, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Magnolia officinalis Bark Extract and Phellodendron amurense Bark Extract, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine, and Maral Root Extract)

  • HeartMath Biofeedback Heart Rate Variability Training the heart send signals to the brain letting it know when to be on high alert and when it can relax. Studies conducted with over 11,500 people have shown improvements in mental & emotional well-being in just 6-9 weeks using HeartMath training and technology.

  • Rest and Relaxation as much as weight gain and muscle loss can prompt individuals to seek an intense exercise program, when dealing with Adrenal Maladaption Syndrome an intense exercise program can actually worsen physical stress. Taking the time to rest and relax will allow you to get your cortisol back to balance and can actually help manage your weight! Epsom salt baths, yoga, meditation, yoga and gentle walking are some of my favorite relaxation habits.

  • The Mediterranean Diet is a great foundational meal plan that allows you to minimize simple carbohydrates which can add to your glucose load and worsen insulin resistance. Focusing on high quality proteins and vegetable fats can maintain your muscle mass and optimize neurotransmitter production.

Mediterranean Diet Information
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  • Elmlinger MW, Dengler T, Weinstock C, Keuhnel W. Endocrine alterations in the aging male. Clin Chem Lab Med. 2003 Jul;41(7):934-41.

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