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Building a Healthy Relationship With Cortisol

By Chris Brown

When cortisol comes up in health articles, they typically are discussing ways of keeping it low. This makes sense, as the overworked and overstressed states of many Americans is consistent with high cortisol levels. And chronically high cortisol puts stresses on the body's systems which cause a range of health problems. However, cortisol is, in moderation, a highly important chemical for survival. In fact, cortisol levels that are too low can do just as much harm as levels that are too high. Before condemning cortisol as the enemy, perhaps you can learn to appreciate this misunderstood hormone.

The Good Side of Cortisol

Cortisol is a hormone, produced by the adrenal gland, that affects nearly every system in the body. It most popularly regulates the stress response for short-term bursts of improved performance in fight-or-flight situations. However, cortisol also plays a role in a number of other functions including blood pressure regulation, inflammation suppression, blood sugar control, and maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Whether cortisol is harmful or helpful depends entirely upon how much is deployed for how long. In healthy, short bursts, cortisol optimizes the body's systems and allows you to perform at your peak when you need it the most.

Dangers of Low Cortisol

Cortisol levels that are below the normal range create negative conditions just like high cortisol. These include fatigue, weight and appetite loss, low blood pressure, and, in the worst cases, death. Most people only need to worry about their cortisol levels being chronically high. However, there is a subset who are susceptible to low cortisol, such as those with gland problems or those who have undergone hormone treatments, such as human growth hormone (hGH) or steroids, for extended periods. For them, raising cortisol levels can be a matter of life and death. 

The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that a scary number of deaths had occurred, following hGH treatment, from a low cortisol condition called "adrenal crisis." Adrenal crisis arises when cortisol levels get so low that the pituitary gland starts to shut down. It can be treated, but must be caught early for the best chances of resurrecting the pituitary system.

Cortisol is, like most of us, a complex, oft-misunderstood hormone. In short bursts, it allows for important regulations and transformations to the body's system. You can support your long-term health by keeping chronic cortisol levels in the normal range and out of the extreme ends of the spectrum, whether that be too high or low.

To learn more about your health, wellness and fitness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic in Mountain Brook, Ala.

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