Corporate Athlete 101: Cortisol & Stress

Here is the fifth question in a series I’ve received from Jeremy Jauncey.  The following Q&A will be used in the nutrition series for our corporate athlete NJU classes.

“When tired and stressed is it true that the body generates cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and raises blood pressure?

As usual, I will break down your question into parts.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is one of the major “glucocorticoids” (a class of steroid-hormones produced by the adrenal cortex, see graphic above).  The adrenal glands lie just above of the kidneys, and are responsible for mediating the body’s stress response.  The way the adrenal glands do this is by pumping out glucocorticoids, one of which is cortisol.

“Fight or flight”?

When in a super charged state, known as “fight or flight” mode (a survival response that keeps the body alert and functioning during stressful situations), the body stimulates the release of cortisol in conjunction with the hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine.  The entire function of all these hormones acting together is to increase blood glucose levels (to give body extra energy to push harder), increase red blood cells (to deliver extra oxygen to the body’s tissues), vasoconstrict blood vessels (constriction of blood vessels to retain body heat and vascular resistance), speed up pulse (speeding heart beat allows more blood to flow throughout body), increase blood pressure (also increases blood flow to body) and slow digestion (stops blood from being shunted to the center part of the body and instead, focuses the blood flow to the extremities: legs, arms, fingers, feet, in order to fight or run away).

When tired and stressed is it true that the body generates cortisol?

Yes — and it is helpful to generate cortisol so that the body is able to push harder through the stressful activity and perform better.

… which suppresses the immune system and raises blood pressure?

Yes to both.  The downside to production of cortisol (especially chronic production) is that several inflammatory cytokines (such as C-reactive protein or CRP, a major inflammatory marker) get elevated.  As a result, both cortisol and inflammatory cytokines (there are more other than CRP) have been implicated in contributing to many diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

How to avoid physiological effects of chronic stress?

(1) Reduce stress: The first step is to reduce stress (but that might be difficult to do).

(2) Diet: The next step is to look at your current diet.  Scientists have been researching how specific nutrients can thwart the effects of high cortisol.  The most notable one is the omega-3 fatty acid.  Omega-3’s come from fatty fish, fish oil pills and algae pills (for vegetarians).  Omega-3’s are a great way to reduce total inflammation in the body.

(3) Exercise: the role of physical activity should not be overlooked.  Exercise has positive effects on anxiety, depression, insomnia and energy.  Exercise promotes the release of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) that is important for the regulation of mood, appetite and sleep.

(4) Social network: no not facebook 🙂  Investing energy toward friendships, both old and new, revitalizes the soul and reduces chronic stress.


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