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What Exactly is 'the Stress Hormone' and How Does it Effect Your Skin and Weight?

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone often called the ‘stress hormone’, secreted from the adrenal glands in response to moments that we all experience throughout our day, such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress. It makes fat and muscle cells resistant to the action of insulin and enhances the production of glucose by the liver. Under stress or if a synthetic cortisol is given as a medication (such as with prednisone therapy or cortisone injection), cortisol levels become elevated and you become insulin resistant.

When a person has type 2 diabetes (T2D), this means you may need to take insulin to keep your blood sugar under control (1). But do you know the ways that it can be impacting the different components of your overall health and wellness? Due to the presence of glucocorticoid receptors in almost every cell of the body, cortisol affects many organ systems, such as the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, and nervous systems. The cells in the human body receive and use the hormone in various ways. That is why the following can all alter the cortisol levels of your body: such as controlling stress response, blood glucose levels, inflammatory responses, and blood pressure.

Mechanism of Cortisol

Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favoring its immediate use. Cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster.

Elevated Cortisol Consequences

Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose utilizing a process called gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help an individual react to or flee from a stressful situation. However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. This can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, when the initial opposing effects of cortisol on insulin is interrupted. With constant elevate levels of cortisol, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in order to provide the body with energy fuel. However, when levels are too elevated the insulin that is also elevated in order to store the extra glucose that is made, the body remains in a general insulin-resistant state with the chronically elevated cortisol levels. Over time, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in the blood remain high, the cells cannot get the sugar they need, and the cycle continues.

Cortisol is necessary and important, as it functions as an anti-inflammation in the body, but over time, these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system. Chronic inflammation, caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and stress, helps to keep cortisol levels soaring, wreaking havoc on the immune system. A person in this position can experience an increased susceptibility to colds and other illnesses, an increased risk of cancer, the tendency to develop food allergies, an increased risk of an assortment of gastrointestinal issues, and possibly an increased risk of autoimmune disease ( 5).

Cortisol and Stress Response:

The bodies autonomic nervous system is broken down into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). In times of stress, the SNS gets activated. The SNS is responsible for the fight or flight response, which causes a cascade of hormonal and physiological responses. The amygdala is responsible for processing fear, arousal, and emotional stimuli to determine the appropriate response. If necessary, the amygdala sends a stress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus activates the SNS, and the adrenal glands release a surge of catecholamines, like epinephrine; this causes tachycardia, hypertension, diaphoresis, increase in respiratory rate and an increase in blood glucose. As the body continues to perceive the stimuli as a threat, the hypothalamus activates the HPA axis. Cortisol is released from the adrenal cortex and allows the body to continue to stay on high alert. When the threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system reduces the SNS response.

Cortisol and Skin

Acne vulgaris, or acne, is a very common skin disease affecting a majority of the population at some point in their life, usually during adolescence.

Stress has long been suspected to induce acne flares by clinical experiences and anecdotal observations, but it was only confirmed 10 years ago by a well controlled study. In a student examination stress study, increased acne severity is significantly associated with stress levels.

Cortisol is a natural hormone that helps the body deal with stress, but at constant high levels it can wreck havoc on your skin. During high levels of stress, people may experience more acne breakouts. The high cortisol levels prompt the skin’s sebaceous glands to produce more sebum or oil. The additional oil clogs the pores which causes inflammation and the accumulation of bacteria (2). There are also other skin conditions such a psoriasis and their flare ups are linked to increased stress levels.

Cortisol and Weight

Research shows that high cortisol levels may be to blame for stress eating, where in one study that was conducted, women were reported as eating more on days that they were stressed out than on days that they were not. This can be explained by the sugar that is triggered to be released by elevated cortisol does not enter cells of the body that would utilize it for energy. The glucose that is released instead stays in the bloodstream, says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Jennifer McDaniel, RD, who specializes in weight management. He states that “this disrupted system increases hunger signals to the brain, leading to an increased appetite for high-calorie foods,” she says. Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose. But those cells are crying out for energy, and one way to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain. This can lead to overeating. And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat.

Overeating or ‘stress eating’ are ways that your cortisol levels can be elevated, causing fat to be deposited within the abdomen. This storage of fat can lead to weight gain, and even obesity in extreme cases. You may ask why this is the case. Well, the fat that is stored around our organs, or visceral fat, produces more cortisol compared to other types of fat tissue. Also, visceral fat cells have more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat. Therefore, it can be easier for a person to gain weight, but harder for them to lose it. Cortisol can also mobilize triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deep in the abdomen). Cortisol also aids adipocytes’ development into mature fat cells.

Cortisol, often referred to as the "stress hormone," can have various effects on the body, including its impact on weight and skin health. Here's a closer look at how cortisol can influence these aspects:

1. Weight:

  • Weight Gain: Cortisol plays a role in metabolism and can affect the way the body stores and uses energy. When cortisol levels are consistently elevated due to chronic stress, it can lead to increased appetite, particularly for high-calorie, comfort foods. This can contribute to weight gain over time.

  • Abdominal Fat: Cortisol tends to promote the storage of fat in the abdominal area. Excess abdominal fat is associated with an increased risk of various health issues, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

  • Muscle Loss: Elevated cortisol levels can lead to the breakdown of muscle tissue and a decrease in lean muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories at rest than fat, so muscle loss can slow down metabolism and make it easier to gain weight.

2. Skin:

  • Acne: Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can trigger or worsen skin conditions such as acne. Stress-induced changes in hormone levels can increase oil production in the skin, leading to clogged pores and breakouts.

  • Premature Aging: Prolonged stress and elevated cortisol levels have been associated with accelerated aging of the skin. This can manifest as wrinkles, fine lines, and reduced skin elasticity.

  • Skin Sensitivity: Stress can also make the skin more sensitive and reactive, potentially leading to redness, itching, or other skin irritations.

Managing Cortisol Levels:

To mitigate the potential negative effects of cortisol on weight and skin, it's essential to manage stress and maintain healthy lifestyle habits:

  1. Stress Reduction: Engage in stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature.

  2. Regular Exercise: Physical activity can help reduce stress and improve mood. It also supports weight management by promoting muscle growth and calorie expenditure.

  3. Healthy Diet: Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive consumption of high-sugar and high-fat foods, which can contribute to weight gain.

  4. Adequate Sleep: Prioritize quality sleep as inadequate sleep can contribute to stress and impact both weight and skin health.

  5. Hydration: Stay well-hydrated, as dehydration can affect skin health.

  6. Skincare: Establish a regular skincare routine tailored to your skin type and concerns to help manage skin issues.

  7. Consult a Healthcare Professional: If you're experiencing chronic stress or have concerns about your weight or skin health, consider seeking guidance from a healthcare professional. They can provide personalized advice and treatment options.

It's important to remember that cortisol is a natural hormone that serves vital functions in the body, including managing stress responses. The goal is not to eliminate cortisol but to maintain it at healthy levels and manage stress effectively for overall well-being

Final Thoughts:

I hope that you’ve gain a little more insight when it comes to cortisol and its effects on your body. Things that we do on our day to day may impact our cortisol levels and we can be completely unaware of its correlation.

If you are interested in reading more about ways in which you can reduce spiking your cortisol levels, click here!

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