While too much stress can be make your life miserable, too little of it might just cause you to underplay a threat that could cause you real harm. We’ve read all about stress and stress symptoms as well as why it affects different individuals in different ways in previous articles.

We turn our focus in this one to varying levels of cortisol, and the positive and negative effects that come with them.

How does cortisol work?

Cortisol, belonging to the glucocorticoid class of hormones(1), is involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response(2) and is released by the adrenal glands when one undergoes a stressful situation. 

All physiological processes which are not essential for immediate survival are inhibited, and energy (in the form of glucose) is temporarily made available from storage sites like the liver and muscles for use for either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. Once one or the other has occurred and the threat has been mediated, the hormonal imbalances eventually get resolved. Read more about the physiological stress response here.

What happens when there is too little cortisol?

Certain diseases like Addison’s Disease cause extremely low levels of cortisol, as the endocrine stress response is not turned on. 

This proves to be harmful(3) as – in response to a burst of activity like sprinting – all the glucose in your bloodstream is used up, but more cannot be obtained from the liver or muscles. This is because it is cortisol that causes the release of stored glycogen reserves from these organs; due to the low levels of it, it is likely that you might suffer from hypoglycaemic shock after a surge of energy that is short-lived. 

What happens when there’s too much cortisol?

Elevated cortisol levels for a short duration might actually have a positive effect – it might help you finish that difficult marathon, for instance. Elevated cortisol levels over a long period of time, however, can lead to negative results such as: 

  • Blood Sugar Imbalance and Diabetes
  • Weight Gain and Obesity
  • Immune System Suppression
  • Gastrointestinal Problems
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Fertility Issues

If you’d like to dig deeper into the effects of high cortisol levels over a long period of time, go right ahead and sink your teeth into this

What happens when there’s just the right amount of cortisol?

Think about it for a second – we actually pay at amusement parks to ride the roller coaster and get the daylights scared out of us. That’s because just the right amount of stress can actually be enjoyable and motivational. It’s what makes you perform well at that important meeting or meet that deadline. 

The part of the brain that deals with memory and learning is called the hippocampus, which has a high level of glucocorticoid receptors, which makes it super sensitive to cortisol. With the right amount of cortisol, these abilities are amplified. This is also why, if your glucocorticoid levels are very high (due to factors like lack of sleep) – you won’t be able to consolidate information as effectively when you are sleep-deprived. 

“The optimal amount of glucocorticoids, something that’s moderately stressful, does great stuff for your hippocampus. It increases blood delivery (and in turn glucose and oxygen) to the brain, and makes the synapses between neurons more excitable.”(4)

What can you do to keep cortisol levels in the ideal range?

In 2019, 94% of American workers reported experiencing stress at their workplace.

Work demands, relationship problems and financial issues are some of the most common stressors of modern-day life. It is only natural to feel overwhelmed once in a while, but with a wholesome lifestyle in which you get the right amount of sleep, get enough physical exercise, and manage your diet properly, stress relief is very possible.  

Practising mindfulness, meditation and yoga, which involves the body and mind both, are other great ways to destress and live a more balanced, joyful life.