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Stress and the stress hormone Cortisol

Angela Hodgkiss – Dermal Aesthetics

When we hear the word ‘hormone’, we immediately think of the well known sex hormones, Testosterone and Oestrogen.  But there are so many more hormones in the body, produced by the endocrine glands, and delivered to cells via the blood and each with the task of sending specific messages to receptors in cells, to result in a desired action. But as functional as these chemical messengers should be, things do go wrong.

If you have had a skin health consult with me, you will already know, I go on a LOT about stress.  Maybe because my life is full of it, and at times, (well all the time), I experience first hand, the effects it has on my weight, sleep patterns and general well being.

The cycle of stress:

  • Our body’s first response to stressors, is to produce hormones via the adrenal glands. These stress hormones are: adrenaline, norepinephrine and The first two are responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Eg: the heart racing, blood pumping, hyper vigilant and muscles tensing. It activates the survival mode we need to escape from danger, it will maintain blood pressure and fluid balance and shut down less important functions when faced in threat, such as immunity and digestion.  Our body doesn’t recognise a life threatening situation, as opposed to moving house or a work deadline – or even a heart racing scary movie, lack of sleep and over exercise. To our body: stress is just stress. And if we stew in our stress for too long our body keeps releasing the cortisol, leading to immune issues, increased blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity and skin disorders such as acne.
  • Stress can cause skin imbalances. It may cause dry skin as cortisol needs more blood supply and nutrients, thus inhibiting NMF and lipid production for skin cells.  When barrier is impaired, it can lead to eczema and other barrier dysfunctions. It may also cause acne as stress induces C. Acnes bacteria.
  • Long term stress can damage brain cells and memory. It disrupts our endocrine and immune system creating degenerative processes in the brain, even resulting in Alzheimer’s.
  • The body has 3 pathways when making hormones and when a perceived stressor occurs, the body responds by increasing cortisol production. This shuts down other hormone production like the mood and sex hormone balancer – progesterone, melatonin needed for sleep, and our happy hormone serotonin. Without progesterone to balance our sex hormones the body is left in a state of estrogen and androgen dominance.
  • As progesterone is important for mood balance, a low level can lead to fatigue and depression.
  • Our blood sugar increases as increased cortisol tricks our body into thinking we need energy fast (to run from danger) so more sugar is sent into the blood stream. The pancreas then needs to produce more insulin to deal with excess sugar that the body is not using (cause we aren’t running from anything).  So, with all that insulin, eventually our cells will stop recognising it and we become insulin resistant.  Hormones including Oestrogen are processed in liver.  If it becomes clogged up, more oestrogen dominance.
  • Insulin narrows blood vessels so less oxygen and circulation which our skin and body need for optimal health. The circulatory system is needed for hormones to travel through blood to cells but it is slowed down in stress. So more hormone imbalance.
  • When cortisol is ‘on’ for too long our growth hormones may be reduced, thus speeding up the ageing process.
  • Adrenals can become fatigued after producing all that cortisol for so long. They cant keep up with the amount of cortisol needed so they start taking progesterone and converting it to cortisol. This causes liver dysfunction and dark circles under eyes (refer Chinese face mapping)
  • Cortisol breaks down muscle mass and causes weight gain. The more over weight we are the more oestrogen dominant we become as fat cells store and produce more oestrogen.
  • Cortisol breaks down proteins such as collagen. Think of someone who has had a huge emotional disturbance. They look like they age 10 years.
  • Oestrogen dominance can deplete thyroid function as can block the receptors T3 and T4, leading to fatigue and further hormonal issues.
  • Stress kicks out zinc. Zinc deficiency leads to leaky gut and inflammatio Depletes B vitamins.

OK, so why can’t we just supplement the missing hormones?

Without Progesterone and Testosterone we become Oestrogen dominant. And just giving supplementary hormones as a supplement won’t fix the problem because when we are stressed and the body thinks it needs cortisol it will actually take the progesterone supplement and turn it into more cortisol.  So, we only compound the estrogen dominance.


The body has three pathways to choose when producing hormones.  But if Stress exists it will immediately shut out two pathways and go straight to the Cortisol pathway.  When this happens Progesterone and Testosterone are immediately reduced. Everything begins with Cholesterol.  So, when on Cholesterol medications this may also affect our hormone production. Good Cholesterol balance is necessary for good hormone production.

How to help

  • Detox the liver to help with processing the excess hormones
  • Walking, talking and laughter are great cortisol lowerers.
  • Do something you love -for some (me) it can even been cleaning the house!!
  • High impact training in short burst improves insulin, lowers cortisol and builds muscle. Long distance running stresses the body and creates cortisol.
  • EFAs to improve quality of cholesterol as well as reduce the bad cholesterol
  • Make more growth hormone – produced in fasting and sleep. A Typical high cortisol person will get tired in arvo and come to life at night. Wired but tired. Hard to get up in the morning. Cortisol is meant to be high in morning but it’s wrong way around.
  • Depp breathing and meditation – the vagus nerve is the only nerve that touches all major organs. It delivers information from the gut to the brain, and sends anti inflammatory signals to other parts of the body. It has 75% control of the para sympathetic systems. The best way to connect with our vagus is through our breath because it listens to how we breathe as it communicates with the diaphram.  We need to stimulate our diaphragm to our belly. 4 sec inhale, 5 sec exhale. Our organs don’t have eyes to see what’s going on so its relying on the vagus nerve.  So we can trick it to think all is well and calm, even when it’s not -just by slow and deep breathing.
  • Be aware of what contraceptives are doing to body. The pill makes up oestrogen dominant as it is meant to trick body into thinking its pregnant. The marina actually puts you into peri menopause which may not be a good idea to change your hormone unnecessarily.
  • Review your diet – Low fat diets can actually reduce healthy omegas and good cholesterol. It has become common knowledge now that low fat products generally mean high sugar.  Avoid overprocessed white foods. Everything white turns to sugar – eg white bread, rice, flour etc.  Also, Vegans usually do not get enough cholesterol required so can end up with hormonal issues.
  • Iodine can help detoxify excess oestrogen’s. There is a link with thyroid deficiency (iodine deficient) and breast cancer.  Most people are not deficient but if you have thyroid issues you may also have excess oestrogen.  Iodine can be found in sea salt. Prawns,
  • Be aware that Cholesterol lowering medications can cause hormonal issues as we need cholesterol to make our hormones. Where possible, find natural ways to lower it, such as EFAs.
  • Hormone mimickers such as pesticides and BPAs etc will attach to any receptor site they can find and then block the hormone from reaching where it was meant to go. When the message goes back to the pituary gland from the cell it is told not to make any more of that hormone because the site thinks its full of what it needs.
  • Walk barefoot on the grass – I know!!! I promise I’m not talking hippy shit, as this is actually scientifically proven. We humans are positively charged and too much (+) causes inflammation. The earth is negatively charged and loaded with free electrons.   Swimming in the ocean, walking barefoot, gardening with bare hands all, connect us back to earth. Earthing has been nicknamed vitamin G. Negative ions boost serotonin, or “feel good” chemicals in your brain. Negative ions increase the flow of oxygen to your brain too, which in turn, creates higher alertness, relieves stress and enhances mental energy. Salt rooms are also full of negative ions.
  • Get 8 hours of quality sleep – Stress is already making us cortisol dominant so we need sleep to balance us out. During our sleep we manufacture the Important ‘feel good hormone’, serotonin.  Melatonin which is our sleep hormone, supports our circadian rhythm , regulates body temp, blood pressure and Is an antioxidant.  Leptin and ghrelin are also affected with short sleep.  Leptin is responsible to regulate appetite and ghrelin sends messages to brain when to eat.  Imbalances in these confuse our body and digestive tract leading to obesity. Cortisol should be low at the start of the night and highest in the morning to wake us up.  If we are stressed then its harder to get to sleep and stay asleep. If we stay up too late cortisol  levels remain higher than normal and consequently glucose level will be higher.   Sleep function GH which is responsible for physical and mental brain health, cell renewal, bone strength, brain function. Enzyme production.  Blue light from TV etc suppresses effect of melatonin production.



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