Natural Health Glossary
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An adrenal-cortex hormone that is active in carbohydrate and protein metabolism. The major natural glucocorticoid (GC) in humans. It is the primary stress hormone.
Cortisol is released in response to stress, sparing available glucose for the brain, generating new energy from stored reserves, and diverting energy away from low-priority activities (such as the immune system) in order to survive immediate threats or prepare for the exertion of rising to a new day. It counteracts insulin, inhibits sodium loss through the small intestine of mammals, and acts as a diuretic hormone.
Prolonged cortisol secretion (which may be due to chronic stress or the excessive secretion seen in Cushing's syndrome) results in significant physiological changes, including proteolysis and muscle wasting. However, too low levels are associated with fibromyalgia.
Its primary functions are to increase blood sugar through gluconeogenesis; suppress the immune system; and aid in fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism. It also decreases bone formation. Various synthetic forms of cortisol are used to treat a variety of diseases.
Cortisol stimulates gluconeogenesis (formation, in the liver, of glucose from certain amino acids, glycerol, lactate and/or propionate) and it activates anti-stress and anti-inflammatory pathways. It downregulates the Interleukin-2 receptor on "Helper" T-cells. This results in the inability of Interleukin-2 to upregulate the Th2 (Humoral) immune response and results in a Th1 (Cellular) immune dominance. This results in a decrease in B-cell antibody production. Cortisol prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation.
Why avoid prolonged stress and therefore cortisol?
Cortisol increases blood pressure by increasing the sensitivity of the vasculature to epinephrine and norepinephrine. It shuts down the reproductive system, resulting in an increased chance of miscarriage and (in some cases) temporary infertility. There are also potential links between cortisol, appetite and obesity.
Cortisol works with epinephrine (adrenaline) to create memories of short-term emotional events; this is the proposed mechanism for storage of flash bulb memories, and may originate as a means to remember what to avoid in the future. However, long-term exposure to cortisol damages cells in the hippocampus; this damage results in impaired learning. Furthermore, it has been shown that cortisol inhibits memory retrieval of already stored information.
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