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Cortisol: The Good News, Bad News, and the Downright Ugly Truth behind This Stress Hormone

Cortisol gets a bad rap. It's blamed for anxiety, high blood pressure, stroke—you name it. But having a better understanding of this hormone's function helps people realize that balancing this hormone—not eliminating it—is key to healthy living.

Cortisol is best known for producing the "fight or flight" response. This reaction evolved as a means of survival, enabling people to react to what could be a life-threatening situation. The change in hormones and physiological responses forces us to either face the threat or leave it behind. But cortisol also helps control blood pressure, increase the body's metabolism of glucose, and reduces inflammation. Our bodies need cortisol to survive. Too much, though, and we overreact to common stressors like heavy traffic, speaking in front of a group of people, or having an argument with a spouse. Over time, these out-of-control stressors compromise our health.

Signs of Chronic Stress

Stress becomes harmful when it doesn't abate. Before you know it, we get caught up with it, we dwell on it, and it is prolonged. "We all have stress," said Tina Halliday, LCSW, behavioral sciences manager and CAT (Comprehensive Assessment Treatment Program) admissions coordinator for University of Utah Health. "Stress can be produced from unpleasant situations as well as great situations like getting a new job, moving into a new home, or even falling in love."

There are a variety of different feeds that create stress. One example that is notable is "related to your thought process, how we perceive an experience," said Halliday. "Our minds can create stress." Halliday likens chronic stress to an everyday experience: like peeling out every time a red light turns green. "You are over using a response that is not necessary to the situation every time a light turns green, hence leading to unnecessary wear on the vehicle. This is similar to our responses and perceptions to stress producing events. Can some of those events be managed in a way that brings them down to size and does not produce unnecessary wear on an individual? Back to our car analogy, if you can accelerate from a full stop in a more gradual way, it's going to be much better on your engine in the long run. " Halliday said.

Some common signs of chronic stress include headache, dry mouth, gastrointestinal problems, heart palpitations, unusual sweating, loss of libido, overeating/undereating, and anxiety symptoms. "When these symptoms continue for a long period of time, it can lead to one's health being compromised, ie, cardiac problems, depression, anxiety, social withdrawal from family and friends, decline in work performance, and/or day-to-day ability to function and find satisfaction in one's life, to name a few," said Halliday.

Solutions to Better Balance

One of the more effective ways to control stress is to catch it early. When stressors appear, take a walk, meditate, practice breathing exercises, and/or find someone to talk to with whom you can address the stress-producing circumstances. Let's face it, it's hard to detach from a stressful life. With regular exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet, we can be more prepared to manage the stressful situations, and we can prevent stress from aggravating our health.

"Our history, experiences, and our perception, can have a tremendous influence on how each person deals with stress," said Halliday. "How one experiences stressful events is influenced by the support one has, an individual's mental state, personal insight, and one's environment. A change in environment, shift in perspective along with healthy physical habits can stave off stressors that can lead to chronic health conditions."