HIGH CORTISOL IN WOMEN
Welcome to our discussion on the impact of high cortisol levels on female hormonal health, particularly for women aged 35 and above. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in our body’s response to stress. While cortisol is essential for our survival, chronically elevated levels can lead to various health issues, particularly in women. On top of that, it can literally change the shape of a women’s body, robbing it of it’s natural beauty.
When cortisol levels remain consistently high, it can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones in a woman’s body. This hormonal imbalance can have a significant impact on female reproductive health. As women age, hormone levels fluctuate, and high cortisol levels can exacerbate these changes, causing a range of problems.
Let’s look at the 10 biggest signs to look out for when identifying high cortisol levels in women.
#1. WEIGHT GAIN
When cortisol levels are consistently elevated, it can lead to weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area. This is because cortisol promotes the storage of fat in the abdominal region, resulting in a more apple-shaped body. Cortisol interferes with the functioning of the thyroid, which plays a vital role in regulating metabolism and energy levels. This disruption can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and difficulty losing weight, which are often experienced by women.
Visceral fat, which is the fat that surrounds the organs in the abdominal cavity, is particularly influenced by high cortisol levels. This type of fat is metabolically active and can increase the risk of various health issues, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. The accumulation of visceral fat is often associated with high cortisol levels, which breaks down muscle protein and converts protein into glucose, leading to increased fat storage.
#2. BLOOD SUGAR IMBALANCES
Cortisol plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar levels by promoting the breakdown of glycogen into glucose in the liver. This process, known as glycogenolysis, increases the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, providing a quick source of energy to deal with the perceived threat or stressor.
However, prolonged or chronic high cortisol levels can disrupt this delicate balance. Cortisol can interfere with the action of insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels by facilitating the uptake of glucose into cells. When cortisol levels are consistently elevated, it can lead to insulin resistance, where the cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin. This can result in higher blood sugar levels, as the glucose is unable to enter the cells efficiently. Over time, this can contribute to the development of conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
#3. APPETITE CRAVINGS
The goal of cortisol in relation to food cravings is to provide the body with a quick source of energy. When cortisol levels are elevated, the body perceives it as a signal of stress or danger, and it prepares for a fight-or-flight response. In this state, the body craves foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates because they can be quickly converted into energy. These “comfort foods” can provide a temporary sense of relief and pleasure.
Additionally, high cortisol levels can cause the body to lose minerals such as magnesium and potassium. These minerals are essential for maintaining proper bodily functions, including the regulation of appetite and cravings. When cortisol levels are elevated, the body excretes more minerals through urine, leading to deficiencies. This can contribute to craving things like salt and red meat as the body tries to compensate for the loss of minerals.
#4. FREQUENT INFECTIONS
Cortisol helps regulate the body’s immune response but when levels are elevated for prolonged periods, it can suppress the immune system. Therefore, it can hinder the body’s ability to fight off infections and illnesses.
High cortisol levels can lead to a decrease in the production of white blood cells, which are crucial for immune defense. These cells play a vital role in identifying and destroying harmful pathogens. High cortisol levels can impair the production and function of these cells, leaving the body more vulnerable to infections like colds & flus.
Additionally, cortisol can interfere with the inflammatory response. Inflammation is a natural defense mechanism that helps the body fight off infections. However, excessive cortisol can dampen this response, making it harder for the immune system to effectively combat pathogens. This can result in a higher likelihood of frequent infections and illnesses.
#5. MENSTRUAL PERIOD
When cortisol levels are high, it can affect the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that plays a crucial role in regulating the menstrual cycle. In this situation, cortisol stimulates the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus. CRH then signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which further stimulates the production of cortisol.
The release of CRH also has an inhibitory effect on the release of gonadotropin hormone-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus. GnRH is responsible for triggering the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland, which are essential for the development and release of eggs from the ovaries. When GnRH is suppressed, it disrupts the normal hormonal cascade, leading to irregular or absent menstrual cycles.
In addition to affecting the hypothalamus, high cortisol levels can also impact the ovaries directly. Cortisol can interfere with the production and function of estrogen and progesterone, two key hormones involved in the menstrual cycle. This disruption can further contribute to irregularities in the menstrual cycle and may even lead to conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or amenorrhea.
In the United States, 8 million women have osteoporosis compared to 2 million men. In the United Kingdom, 21.9% of women compared to 6.7% of men are estimated to suffer from the disease. As you can see, osteoporosis is more of a threat for women.
Cortisol can interfere with the normal process of bone remodeling in women particularly. It can suppress the activity of osteoblasts, which are responsible for bone formation, while promoting the activity of osteoclasts, which break down bone tissue. This imbalance can result in a net loss of bone density over time, leading to osteoporosis.
Additionally, high cortisol levels can affect the absorption and metabolism of calcium, an essential mineral for maintaining bone health. Cortisol can decrease the absorption of calcium from the intestines and increase its excretion through the kidneys. This can further contribute to a decrease in bone density and increase the risk of osteoporosis. It is important to manage stress and maintain healthy cortisol levels to protect bone health.
#7. MUSCLE WEAKNESS
High cortisol levels in women causes muscle weakness by promoting protein breakdown and inhibiting muscle growth. This can lead to a loss of muscle mass and strength. Additionally, cortisol can redistribute fat to the abdominal area, resulting in a bigger belly. It can also lead to a flattening of the buttocks due to the breakdown of muscle tissue in that area. A nightmare for any women looking to build or maintain a healthy, feminine figure!
When cortisol levels are high, the body enters a catabolic state, breaking down muscle protein for energy. This can result in muscle weakness and a decrease in overall muscle mass. The breakdown of muscle protein also releases amino acids, which can be converted into glucose by the liver, leading to increased blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, high cortisol levels can impair the production of growth hormone, which is essential for muscle growth and repair. This further contributes to muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass. Additionally, cortisol can increase the production of enzymes that break down collagen, a protein that provides structure to muscles and connective tissues.
#8. EASY BRUISING
High cortisol levels can cause easy bruising by weakening blood vessels and impairing the body’s ability to repair them. When cortisol levels are elevated, collagen production is reduced, making blood vessels more fragile and prone to damage. Additionally, cortisol can impair the function of platelets, which are responsible for clotting and preventing excessive bleeding. This combination of weakened blood vessels and impaired clotting mechanisms can lead to easy bruising even from minor injuries.
Furthermore, high cortisol levels can also increase inflammation in the body, which can further contribute to easy bruising. Inflammation can weaken blood vessel walls and make them more susceptible to damage. Additionally, inflammation can impair the body’s ability to repair damaged blood vessels, prolonging the healing process and increasing the likelihood of bruising.
#9. SLOW HEALING
High cortisol in women slows down the body’s healing process by suppressing the immune system and reducing inflammation. This can result in delayed wound healing and prolonged recovery times.
As previously mentioned, high cortisol disrupts the balance of other hormones in the body, such as growth hormone and testosterone, which are important for tissue repair and regeneration. Corticosteroids, synthetic versions of cortisol, are often prescribed to reduce inflammation in certain medical conditions. However, prolonged or excessive use of corticosteroids can lead to high cortisol levels and subsequently hinder the body’s healing abilities. It is important to manage stress levels and seek medical advice to maintain a healthy cortisol balance for optimal healing.
High cortisol levels can cause insomnia by disrupting the sleep/wake cycle regulated by the pineal gland. The pineal gland produces melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. When cortisol levels are high, it can interfere with the production of melatonin, leading to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
Additionally, high cortisol levels can increase alertness and arousal, making it harder to relax and fall asleep. Cortisol is released in response to stress, so chronic stress can lead to consistently elevated cortisol levels, further exacerbating insomnia.
To improve sleep and reduce cortisol levels, it is important to manage stress through relaxation techniques, regular exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. Creating a calming bedtime routine and ensuring a comfortable sleep environment can also help promote better sleep.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill, or a one-step solution that you can take to keep your cortisol levels in check. As most things that apply to living a healthy lifestyle, you will need a well rounded approach and improving your situation won’t happen overnight. Here are some things that you should consider doing to support healthy cortisol levels within the body:
- Get enough sleep – aim for 7-9 hours per night to help regulate cortisol levels and promote overall well-being.
- Practice stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to reduce cortisol production.
- Engage in regular exercise, such as walking or swimming, to help lower cortisol levels and improve mood.
- Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting processed foods and sugar, which can contribute to cortisol spikes.
- Prioritize relaxation and self-care activities, such as taking baths, reading, or listening to music, to help lower cortisol levels and promote a sense of calm.
- Limit caffeine intake, as it can stimulate cortisol production and contribute to elevated stress levels.
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance to reduce chronic stress and keep cortisol levels in check.
- Stay hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day, as dehydration can increase cortisol levels.
- Incorporate stress-reducing supplements like ashwagandha or magnesium into your routine, after consulting with a healthcare professional.
- Seek social support from friends, family, or support groups to help manage stress and keep cortisol levels low.
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